“Michael Sanders was a boy that lived in this town,” the sheriff started.
“Michael and Ethan grew up next door to one another and were friends. That was until the day Jake Miller, Ethan’s father left town. On that day a whole lot of things changed.”
“Jake couldn’t take his wife’s growing obsession with the church anymore. I guess, one day, he finally had enough and left the town and his family behind. Ethan was nine at the time, but even at that age, he must’ve understood what was going on. The boy’s attitude towards the church changed.”
“Can’t say I blame the boy,” Anderson said all of a sudden.
I looked up when the sheriff said this. I thought he hated Ethan. When he noticed my stare, the man smiled a bit.
“Well, where was I,” he continued, “Ah yes, Jake Miller.”
“People in this town talk and people knew why Jake had left. It was a nasty business. Many said he’d turned from God and that’s why he left. It wasn’t long before the kids picked up on it and they all said the same things their parents had said. Ethan’s dad had been a bad man, Ethan’s dad had been a heretic, and Ethan was as well. They tormented the boy, and the worst of them was no other than Michael.”
“Yeah, but if he bullied Ethan, then what-”
“I’m not done, David,” the sheriff sighed.
“I guess people should’ve seen it coming. Even as a boy Ethan had a short temper and was prone to anger issues. One day he snapped.”
“One day, the neighborhood boys had been teasing him again. I guess that day Ethan had enough. I heard many of the stories, but no one really knows what happened. A fight between Ethan and Michael resulted, and he beat the boy senseless. Even when Michael’s parents arrived, Ethan didn’t let go of him.”
“Took both of them to tear a nine-year-old Ethan of their boy. By the time the ambulance arrived, Michael was bleeding and in bad condition. Turns out the boy had fallen in a bad way and ended up with permanent damage to his spine. The doctors said he’d never walk again.”
“Yeah but it was an accident, wasn’t it?”
“That’s what people said. There were rumors, however. Some of the other kids said Ethan beat Michael with a stone or that he crushed his back with his foot over and over again. Some even said he wanted to kill the boy.”
“What? How have I never heard about any of this?”
“Well, David, people in this town don’t like to talk about bad things. As I said, it was ruled as an accident. Everything else was nothing but rumors.”
“So, what happened to Michael? I never heard about him. There’s no one at school by that name!”
Anderson took a deep breath. “Guess there’s no avoiding it. The boy died. It wasn’t long after the fight. Consequences during an operation, they said.”
“Jesus Christ,” I snapped.
“Yeah. Wasn’t long before his parents moved away. Yet, the rumors and accusations against Ethan stayed. Worse even, Ethan never seemed to show any remorse about it or admitted to it at all. He simply pretended none of it ever happened.”
“And all of this happened before mom, and I even moved to this town?”
“That boy’s got issues, David, serious issues. Can’t blame him for what happened with his dad, that’s tough on any child. Can’t say the same for this whole thing with Michael, or,” he broke up for a moment, “what happened to Claire. And now he’s causing trouble all over town again. It will only be a matter of time until things escalate. You’d better keep your distance from him, David.”
“I never knew anything like this happened.”
“Well, most people don’t anymore. The people in this town have a tendency to forget. Still, even if most people have forgotten about Michael Sanders, they remember that Ethan is trouble.”
I didn’t know what to say. I sat on the seat in silence.
“Here we are, David.”
With that, he stopped the car in front of my house and let me out.
The moment I stepped inside, mom was waiting for me.
“David! Where have you been?”
“I was just out on a walk, mom.”
“And that’s why Sheriff Anderson has to escort you home?”
“He said it was pretty late and offered to drop me off, that’s all.”
She knew it was bullshit. I could see it in her eyes, but for once, she didn’t pressure me any further.
That evening, when I thought about the story of Michael Sanders, there was another thing that stayed on my mind. Something that Sheriff Anderson had said.
‘The people in this town have a tendency to forget.’
These words stayed on my mind until I finally fell asleep.
The next day in school, I asked Nathan about the whole thing.
“Hey, do you know about Michael Sanders?”
For a moment, Nathan just looked at me, but then a hint of recognition showed on his face.
“Yeah, I think I do, why? Didn’t he die at the hospital? Why are you asking weird things like that?”
“He died due to a fight with Ethan, right?”
“What the hell?” Nathan blurted out in surprise.
“Yeah, Anderson told me. How do you not know?”
“No one talks about things that happened so long ago. Really though, I can totally imagine it! That guy always had issues!”
“Yeah, you got that one right. God the stuff he told me…” I shook my head.
“You know he got into another fight this morning, right?” someone called out to us from behind.
It was Anxiety Eric who’d sneaked up on us once more.
“Why can’t you act like a normal person for once?” I confronted him, but Nathan was quick to step towards him.
“What did that guy do now?”
“Well, this morning, he went to confront Mrs. Mansfield! He cornered her and asked her all sorts of questions, but then one of the substitute teachers stepped in and told him to get out of here.”
Mousy little Mrs. Mansfield. I couldn’t imagine how she’d reacted to one of Ethan’s outbursts. I could see it right in my mind. Her eyes wide, lips quivering and close to passing out.
“… punched the guy really hard,” I heard Eric going on. “There was a bit of a fight before other people were involved. I heard he got kicked out of school again.”
“Good!” Nathan reacted.
“He’s probably still trying to prove his stupid theory,” I mumbled.
“What’s the theory, David? You mention it all the time, but you never said what it was? Does he think there are aliens under the church? Or maybe shapeshifters?” Nathan asked, laughing.
“What? No, he thinks someone’s keeping secrets about people dying. Well, I think he believes its Pastor Owens or the church.”
“People dying?” Eric chimed in.
“Yeah, he’s got this whole list of people who he thinks died a mysterious death and, god I don’t even know.”
Nathan was still laughing. “He always he had a few screws loose. And of course, it’s always the church. Every single time.”
“Hah, yeah, for an atheist he sure likes to talk about it,” I added.
At this comment, we all laughed. It was true enough, though.
“What’s so funny, Sullivan?”
Before I could react, I was cornered by Craig and his friend Mark. The moment they stepped up to me, I saw Eric hurrying away, proving yet again that his nickname really fit him well. Nathan shuffled around nervously but didn’t speak up. Moments later, he was pushed aside by Mark.
“How about we have a little talk, Sullivan?” Craig asked in a sarcastic voice and started to push me down the hallway.
“What is-” I started but was hit by Mark. “Shut up and walk!”
I cursed in pain as they continued to shove me onward. It wasn’t long before they found an empty classroom and pushed me inside.
“Well then, Sullivan, how’s your buddy doing?”
“Nathan’s still out in the hallway,” I answered. This smartass reply prompted another hit, this time by Craig himself.
“Fucking hell, why-”
“You know who I’m talking about!”
“Yes, fine, you’re talking about Ethan. You know what? I don’t give a shit about him!”
“Is that right?” Craig said and pushed me against the wall.
“Yes, Craig, it is! I’ve got no clue where he is, and I don’t freaking care!”
“Then why were you hanging out with him not too long ago?”
“That’s because he came up to me! I told you!”
“Right. So how about this Sullivan. You drop your buddy a little message, saying you’re waiting for him behind the gym after school.”
“Yeah, and what makes you think he’ll come?”
“Figure it out Sullivan,” Mark added.
“Yeah, I’m sure a smart boy like you can think of a way. Otherwise,” and with that, Craig grabbed hold of my arm and started to twist it. “Otherwise, we’ll have to make do with you.”
I winced in pain. “Fine, alright!”
Craig let me go and started to make his way out of the room, followed by Mark.
“You better send that message, Sullivan!” he shouted back at me once more.
After they’d left for good, I cursed to myself and rubbed my arm.
“Hey man, you alright?”
It was Nathan who came up to me.
“Why didn’t you do anything?” I yelled at him.
“What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know, maybe not leave me alone and let them beat the shit out of me!”
“They’d just beat me up too!”
“You know what, Nathan? Just fuck off!”
I walked off to my next class, leaving Nathan behind. The guy could be a real douchebag at times. He was always talking high and mighty about others, yet he wasn’t so different from Anxiety Eric.
For the rest of the day, I thought about what to do. It was clear that they wanted me to lure Ethan out. I didn’t care one bit about what happened to him, yet something like this didn’t sit right with me.
On the other hand, wasn’t it his fault to begin with?
For a while, I thought about what to write to him. Should I apologize? Tell him I heard Pastor Owens talk about Claire? At that moment I remembered the list of names he’d given me.
‘I found out something about the names on the list. Meet me after school behind the gym.’
I stared at the message for a whole minute before I pressed send.
Once my last class was over, Craig and his friends were already waiting for me outside in the hallway.
“Well, Sullivan, how’d it go?”
“I sent the stupid message, but I’ve got no clue if he’s coming,” I answered in a low voice as they led me outside.
“Better hope he does,” Mark said with a grin on his face.
They walked me across the schoolyard and towards the gym. A few other students gazed over at me, but they all ignored what was going on. There was Mrs. Mansfield, blissfully ignorant of the situation. I tried to get her attention, but it was useless. She wouldn’t have guessed what was going on anyways.
The moment we rounded the gym, I saw him. Ethan had actually come. At the sound of us approaching, he looked up. For a moment he seemed puzzled, then he realized what was going on.
“Fucking hell,” he pressed out with a bit of a grin before Mark and Thomas rushed him.
“Thanks, Sullivan,” Craig called out to me as I turned to leave.
I was sure Ethan would put up a fight, hell I knew he would. Still, it was one against three, even with Craig’s busted up arm.
I felt like such a piece of shit.
I was barely of school property when I saw Sheriff Anderson’s car nearby. With quick steps, I went over to him and told him what I’d seen.
“Well, you reap what you sow,” he said in a hard voice.
The sheriff looked at his watch for a moment. “Another half minute, if they don’t come back by then, I guess I’ll step in.”
With that, he leaned back, took out a smoke, and lit it.
I was about to say something, but then I walked off. Why did I even care? Fuck it, David, it’s not your problem. The sheriff was right, he was just getting what he asked for. Still, it didn’t help to quiet my conscience.
Would Anderson actually do something? I could imagine the sheriff just sitting in his car, quietly ignoring the situation. Hell, I could imagine him walking up to Craig and the rest, telling them to give Ethan a few good ones for him too.
After a while, though I shook my head and told myself to stop thinking about this whole mess once and for all. For the past weeks, my entire life had revolved around Ethan and his weird theories. Enough was enough. It wasn’t like Craig would kill him or anything.
The moment I arrived home though, it was clear that things wouldn’t be over so quickly.
Mom was at home, but she wasn’t alone. Sitting with her in the living room was Pastor Owens.
“David, can you come here for a moment? We want to talk to you about something.”
I looked from her to the pastor, who showed me his usual patronizing smile.
“What’s going on? Is this about the presentation? I’m almost done with it, I swear!”
“No, my son. We’re here to talk to you about Ethan Miller,” the pastor started. The smile on his face vanished the moment the name had left his mouth, and it was replaced by a hard look.
“We know you met up to talk to him last night,” mom started. I rolled my eyes. Of course, she’d talk to Anderson.
“Now, David, what did that boy tell you?”
“It’s all bullshit for Christ’s sake! Why’s everyone so into his stupid stories? You could almost think he-”
“Because we’re here to tell you what truly happened the night my daughter died. David, my son, what did that boy say happened to my daughter?”
I was still a bit confused to find Pastor Owens at my home, but soon, I started to explain. I told him and mom everything Ethan had told me. Claire’s supposed panic attacks, her dreams, her talking in her sleep and her freak-out before running off into the forest. I could see the Pastor’s face growing harder as he listened. Mom’s face, on the other hand, turned first to disappointment and then anger.
“Why did you never tell me about these things, David?”
“Because… I don’t know mom, it sounded so weird. I didn’t think it was important!”
“You didn’t think it was important that he went around sprouting all those lies?” she yelled at me.
Pastor Owens was quick to step up to her.
“Now, now, Nicole, we’re not here to blame David.”
With that, the Pastor turned to me. “Don’t worry, son, we aren’t angry at you.”
The whole situation was awkward, and the way the Pastor spoke to me made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Finally, I nodded.
“He’s been lying to you David,” he said, now again smiling at me in his patronizing way.
“That boy made up this whole story. It’s all lies. The evils of the church, myself as well as my daughter’s supposed delusions.”
“She was always a gentle child, faint of heart. From the day she started dating that boy, she changed. She acted differently and kept to herself more and more often. Yet I noticed them, I noticed the bruises she tried to hide so desperately from her mother and me. I could tell she was afraid of him. Whenever I asked her though, she’d say everything was alright. But, oh, I knew the truth.”
The man shook his head. “We never had the closest of relationships,” he said, and his eyes grew sad for a moment.
After a while, his face grew hard again, and he stepped up right in front of me.
“I know what happened that night! Old Mr. Schumer told me he saw her running into the night, screaming at someone to get away from her. It wasn’t long before he saw who it was she was running from. That devil, he was chasing after her, screaming at her. There’s no doubt, David, that devil killed my little girl!”
By now, the man was shaking, his hands were resting on my shoulders, and his face was only inches away from mine.
“But he,” I started but broke up as the Pastor’s wide eyes stared deep into mine.
“It’s all lies, my son. It’s all lies.”
“David, I know you want to believe him,” mom started. “He’s Odette’s boy for crying out loud, but Pastor Owens is telling the truth. My god, that poor girl.”
“But why’d he,” I started but broke up. I knew what they were implying. None of the things he’s told me were true. Ethan had made all of it up to blame the church and Pastor Owens for what he’d done.
Yet, was it all so easy?
“When they found my poor girl, you know what she had on her body? This is what she was holding on to! Clutching it in her hands! When she ran off into the darkness, all she took with her was this cross of our Lord and savior!”
With that, Pastor Owens brought out a richly ornamented cross on a necklace. It was golden, adorned with small roses and a name was engraved in its center. The name of Pastor Owens’ wife and Claire’s mother.
“That cross, it’s the cross I gave to her myself when her mother was sick! Every night, that little angel prayed for her dear mother to get better! She wore it as a sign of our good Lord!”
I didn’t say a thing. Seeing pastor Owens like this, standing in front of me, staring at me, with tears in his eyes. I couldn’t speak.
“You can’t associate with him anymore, David!” my mom interjected in an almost shrieking voice.
“I, I don’t mom. He’s the one who came up to me every time! I just thought it was because of Claire that he-”
“It’s alright, son,” Pastor Owens said once more.
“We’ve just got to make sure that he receives his righteous judgment for what he’s done.”
As he said this, the Pastor’s eyes grew wide and angry, almost hungry.
Righteous judgment. I’d heard these words before. They almost reverberated in my head now. I looked over at mom, confused, but she was smiling, nodding as the Pastor repeated the words once more.
When the Pastor finally released me from his grip, I nodded.
“I think I’m going to my room,” I pressed out in a low voice.
As I made my way towards the stairs, I could almost feel the pastor and mom’s stares.
Did Ethan really make it all up? The way he’d acted, however, his paranoia, his obsession… Most important, why’d he come to me about it? Why me after all those years? Sure he needed to get into the archives, but why’d he come to me again and again? Why’d he think I’d believe the church was evil? My mom was the organizer of the monthly bible circle for Christ’s sake!
None of it made any sense.
As I sat in front of my computer, I tried to distract myself by browsing the web. Somehow though the image of that cross came back to my mind. An engraved cross with the name Margaret on it. Hadn’t I heard about something like this long before Claire’s death?
There was something in the back of my mind, but the memory only returned when I saw Nathan the next day at school.
Back before Claire and Ethan got together, Nathan had a crush on her. I remembered how often he’d wait up for her after class to walk her home. It was almost a bit creepy. Especially since it was during the time that Claire’s mother was sick.
One day though, he’d said he’d wait up for her again, only to storm after me minutes later, cursing about Ethan and… a cross. He was so angry, almost crying and ranted on why she’d be with him of all people.
‘Why’d he give her a cross? Him of all people! Doesn’t he hate the church?’
Those words came back to me right now as he stood in front of me.
“Nathan, I got to ask you something.”
“Sure, what’s up?”
It felt a bit awkward to ask him this. “That one day, you saw Ethan and Claire together after school, right?”
For a moment he was a bit confused, but as the memory came back to him, his face grew angry.
“Yeah, thanks for reminding me about it.”
“No, that’s not what I meant, shit man, I’m sorry. You said something about a cross back then?”
“What the hell’s your problem? What does it matter?”
“Dude, just tell me, alright?”
“Goddamnit, David, yes! That day I went to talk to her like every other day. And then he was there! Handing her a golden cross with her mother’s name on it! Told her it would help her mother get well again! Such fucking bullshit!”
He kicked the locker next to him, but I didn’t react to it. My mind was too busy.
Hadn’t Pastor Owens said this cross was a present by him? Why’d he lie about it? No, wait. The Pastor had said Claire had it with her when they found her. If she’d truly been afraid of Ethan, wouldn’t she have thrown it away? Hell, she’d probably not even taken it with her!
“Jesus Christ,” I whispered.
“Yeah no shit man, can’t believe she’d fall for him because of-”
“No, I mean Ethan didn’t-” but I broke up as soon as the words had left my mouth.
“You know what, fuck you, David!”
I called out to him as he walked away, but he didn’t turn around. For a moment, I watched him, but then my thoughts returned to Ethan and the cross.
If Ethan truly hadn’t done anything to Claire, then why’d the Pastor and mom tell me he had? That story about Ethan abusing her and what Old Mr. Schumer had seen. Was any of it even true?
Why’d he tell me this story? Was he trying to convince me that Ethan had murdered Claire?
Shit, what the hell was going on here? My mind was a mess. All day at school, and even on my way home, I couldn’t make sense of it.
The moment I stepped into the living room, I wanted to talk to mom about it. I had to tell her the truth about the cross and that Pastor Owens had lied about Ethan. She’d believe me, right? She was friends with Ethan’s mom after all. If I could explain it to her, then maybe we could figure out what was going on together! Perhaps we could find out why Pastor Owens was so fixated on blaming Ethan.”
“Mom are you home?” I called out.
“Yes, David, I am, what is it?”
“I heard something, no, I mean, I remembered something about Ethan.”
The moment she heard the name, she walked over to me.
“What did you remember, David?”
She said it in her usual, sweet voice, but her eyes were different from usual. They were gazing at me, probing me. Her smile, however, stayed the same. I couldn’t tell if it was genuine or… fake. It made me feel uncomfortable.
I don’t know why I did it, really, but somehow how I got the feeling that I shouldn’t tell her after all.
“Eh, Eric told me that Ethan pressured him about a thing he said,” I lied. “Maybe we should tell Anderson about it? Who knows what he’s up to. Eric seemed really scared.”
“Oh, is that what you wanted to talk about?” she asked, not even trying to hide the disbelief in her voice.
“Well, yeah,” I said in a strained voice. “You and Pastor Owens told me to take this serious!”
“But hadn’t he been fighting with Eric before? That’s why he went to see his grandfather, right?”
“That was like a month ago, mom! What I’m talking about happened yesterday!”
“Guess it wouldn’t hurt to give Sheriff Anderson a call,” she said, still smiling.
“Was that all, David?”
Once more, she measured me up and probed me with her eyes. When I nodded, she turned away towards the kitchen again.
“Well, I’m going up to my room,” I said and hurried up the stairs.
The way mom had acted, it was weird. Did she know that what I’d just told her was a lie? Should I’ve told her about the cross? Her eyes, however…
During dinner, mom and I didn’t talk much. She asked me a few things about the school, and I answered. It was nothing but mundane small talk. However, there was something else going on. It seemed as if she was waiting for me to tell her what I’d really remembered. I, on the other hand, tried my best to make it look like nothing was going on.
Once dinner was over, I couldn’t sit still. Mom’s presence, her eyes, her way of talking to me. It was almost suffocating. The house felt suffocating. I needed to get out to get some fresh air.
For a moment, I had trouble breathing. This was all a bit too much for me. There was too much on my fucking mind, and it all made me anxious.
“I’m going for a short walk, mom, alright?”
“Sure, David, but make sure to come back soon!”
As she said it, her eyes were still the same. The same probing gaze. As I stepped outside, I wondered if she was going to watch me from the windows. In my mind, I saw her stalking me, following me down the road to see what I was up to and if I was meeting Ethan again.
Finally, though I shook my head. Calm down, David. You’re acting like freaking Ethan. You’re paranoid.
As I walked down the street, my eyes wandered over our small town. It was so peaceful. How could all these terrible things happen here?
Once more, I looked up at the frame of the giant church. It looked like an ancient monument, rising up into the dark, evening sky. My eyes rested on its highest point yet again.
“How are you related to all this,” I whispered as I stared at the magnificent building from afar.
The longer I looked, the more the feeling of that afternoon came back. This ominous feeling of the church not towering, but lurking over the town. No, not just the town, over me.
Once more, I told myself to calm down. That’s why I came out here, right? To get all those crazy thoughts out of my mind.
As I stepped on, I pushed my hands into the pockets of my jacket. It was a stormy night. I really should return home soon.
Suddenly, I felt something. My hand closed around a small crumbled up piece of paper. At first, I looked at it, wondering what it was. When I remembered Ethan’s list of names, I frowned.
I was about to toss the note, but then I stopped. For a moment, I told myself that I wouldn’t get involved anymore.
Yet, as I looked back at my talk with mom and Pastor Owens, doubt once more took hold of my mind. However, I looked at it. However, I looked at mom’s behavior. There was something wrong with it all. There was something that didn’t add up.
I quickly unfolded the small note and looked at the names.
There was Mrs. Rose’s daughter Emily. Here was Laura’s mother, Mrs. Summers. The third was Nugget, the nice middle-aged man who’d helped mom with the church duties when I was younger. Next up was the flower lady Miss Graham, who’d run the small flower arrangement store at the east side of town.
In total there were more than a dozen names on the list, just like Ethan had said. Somehow I knew them all. It was weird to read all these names. Looking back, the same thought came back to me once more. Why’d I never wonder what happened to them?
When I returned home, mom was in the living room, watching TV. I’d been a bit apprehensive, but now she seemed as normal as could be. She looked up and smiled at me, asking me how my little stroll went and told me she’d go to bed soon.
“And you, David, make sure you do the same. Don’t stay up all night in front of the computer again,” she said, laughing a bit.
By now, I wasn’t sure about earlier today anymore. Had she really been acting strange or had my mind played tricks on me? I couldn’t tell.
Once I was back in my room, I didn’t know what to think. This was all so damn confusing. In the end, though, I decided to follow what I’d told myself before. I’d not get involved in this. With that, I threw Ethan’s note into the trash can below my desk.
That night my sleep was plagued by strange dreams. In one of them, Pastor Owens screamed the words righteous judgment at me. In another, a ghastly caricature of my mom was lurking over me. She was as large as the church, staring at me with dead, empty eyes. Yet in another one I was chased through the forest, running from something or someone.
When my alarm woke me up, I felt restless, almost exhausted. My eyes felt like falling shut any moment again.
I lay in bed for another couple of minutes before mom called out to me to hurry down and get some breakfast. When I stumbled down, she’d already put on some coffee.
“Oh, before I forget,” she spoke up suddenly.
“Can you pick up something at Miss Mansfield’s office for me today? It’s for the bible circle on Saturday. I can’t make it since I’m meeting with Pastor Owens because of this week’s mass.”
When I didn’t say a thing, she turned to me. “David, wake up! You remember, right? Your presentation, the bible circle, the mass on Sunday? Hello?”
I stopped in my track. I felt like I was hit with a sledgehammer. Suddenly I was wide awake, and without another word, I rushed back upstairs to my room.
“David, what’s going on with you this morning?” I heard mom yelling after me, but I ignored her.
I was back in my room, going through the trash until I held Ethan’s note in my hands again.
I read over the names once more. It was true.
Each and every one of them was related to the church. No, not just the church, I realized, to Pastor Owens’ mass.