The first thing I did once I’d retreated back to my room was to send Ethan a message. I waited for long minutes, but no reply came. Even after half an hour, there was nothing. When I rechecked the message, I saw that he hadn’t read it yet. Shit, he must still be locked up by Anderson.
I didn’t feel well at all. I was exhausted, shaky, and that damned melody was still humming in the back of my mind. It was a silent reminder of all the horrors that seemed to be going on here.
There was also mom. When had she changed like this? The way she acted, it was if she was utterly insane.
While I sat at my desk, I tried to figure out what I should do. Or better, what I could do. I walked over to the window and toyed with the idea of getting out, to simply run away. What then, though? It would only prove to them that they were right and that I was as crazy as they thought. I’d only get locked up by Anderson, or worse… I didn’t want to think about the alternative.
No, for now, in the condition I was in, there was nothing I could do.
I went to bed and tried to sleep, but my brain was still in an uproar. For a moment, I scratched at the back of my head, trying to stop the melody from reverberating inside of it. It didn’t help.
There was no way I could sleep.
People in this town were driven to suicide, or hell, maybe they were outright murdered. I thought back to the list of names again and tried to remember the people on it. It was so damn hard. It was almost as if all memories of them were gone. Nugget, he’d been so friendly. He’d been at the house so often, yet I couldn’t even remember his face. How was something like that possible?
Right at that moment, I heard something. It was a low, faint sound coming from outside. I listened carefully and concentrated. There it was again. It was almost inaudible, a slight creak of the floorboards right in front of my door. Was mom out there right now? Was she listening, or worse watching?
After a while, I turned around, closed my eyes, and pretended to be asleep. I don’t know how long I lay there. It might have been minutes, but it could very well have been an hour. Then the door was carefully being opened.
Someone stepped inside. I heard the sound of low breathing from right beside my bed and then, moments later, mom’s voice. It was nothing but a murmur, almost inaudible.
“My sweet little David,” she whispered to herself, “may you never turn from God.”
I had to fight the instinct to turn around. All I could do was lay there quietly and breathe low and steadily. I waited for her to walk back outside, to leave, but there was only silence. No footsteps, no door, nothing at all.
It seemed like an eternity before I finally dozed off.
My sleep was plagued by nightmares yet again. I was haunted by a crazed mob of dark figures that was screaming at me about eternal damnation and the horrors of not following the church’s commands. All the while, the rhythmic melody of the church organ was playing.
I was woken up by a hand touching me. I jerked up and almost screamed, the dream still real in my mind. It was mom. Standing next to my bed, with a sickly, sweet smile on her face.
She’d never woken me up like that.
“Now David, don’t be such a sleepy head! You’ve got a busy day ahead of yourself!”
She laughed a little. “Now get up and get some breakfast!”
As I watched her walk out of the room, a thought crept into my mind. Had she been here all night? Had she been standing right next to me, watching over me to make sure I didn’t run off? I couldn’t help but shiver.
I forced myself to eat some breakfast, hoping it would make me feel somewhat better. As I forced bite after bite down my throat, mom babbled on happily about today’s bible circle and that damned presentation.
I’d hoped for some privacy, some room to breathe, but I shouldn’t get it.
Once breakfast was over, she ushered me back to my room to go over the presentation with her.
She took a seat next to me, and we spent all morning going over it again and again. She kept adding bits and pieces of information as well as little details to every slide.
As we reached the pictures of the church, I felt my head spin for a moment. While I stared at them, the melody in the back of my head started hammering with newfound intensity. I winced for a moment, but when mom looked up, I was quick to shake my head.
Once we were done, I felt almost sick. She soon left my room to prepare lunch, but all I could do was lay down for a few precious minutes. My head was still beating slightly. I closed my eyes and massaged my temples, but it was futile.
When she called me down for lunch, our neighbor Mr. Shaw was already there. For years he’d been her right-hand man in organizing the bible circle, but I knew that he was more now. The moment I stepped into the kitchen, he was standing next to my mother, obviously flirting with her.
The moment she noticed me, she pushed the man aside for a bit, giving him a cocky smile.
“Oh how dare you, John,” she said to him laughing.
“David, come and say hello.”
“Now, now Nicole, don’t pressure the boy,” Mr. Shaw said and walked up to me.
“How have you been, David?” the man asked, giving me a bear hug.
“I’ve been alright,” I answered in a low voice.
“Well, I hope you are! Looking forward to that presentation of yours!”
“Oh, it’s fantastic, John! David really outdid himself!” mom said in an excited voice.
“It better be son,” he said, patting me on the back.
At him calling me son, mom couldn’t help but giggle. Hearing this made me feel even worse.
After lunch, the remaining members of the bible circle slowly assembled. Mrs. Mansfield was one of the first to arrive.
“David! I’m so happy to see that you’re okay! I heard that boy forced you to go to the church with him! I couldn’t believe it when I first heard it!”
“You mean Ethan? No, I-” but I broke up right away when I saw her eyes go wide at the mention of the name. For a moment, her face changed into a wild, angry expression that I’d never seen from her before. It wasn’t only her though, mom and the other guests were eyeing me from afar as well as if waiting for me to continue.
“I mean, yeah, I’m happy this is all over.”
“Believe me, we all are!” she said, back to her usual self.
“You ready for your presentation?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
As I said this, she gave me a warm smile, then hurried off to talk to mom and Mr. Shaw.
The last person to arrive was Pastor Owens. The man smiled at me when he came in. It was not a warm smile.
Soon after the pastor had arrived, mom ushered everyone into the living room. Mrs. Mansfield had brought a project from school and had already set up everything for my presentation.
I stepped up in front of the dozen or so people that made up the bible circle. I’d felt terrible most of the day, but now, surrounded by them, I felt even worse. They were all staring at me with big, empty smiles on their faces.
In the center, I saw mom and Pastor Owens. They were both leaning forward, focusing on me intently. Their eyes hungry, their mouths distorted to an almost mocking smile.
This didn’t feel like a lighthearted presentation. This felt like a tribulation for a heretic, having to prove his innocence.
I closed my eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and then started. I looked at nothing, tried to ignore their probing gazes and in a shaken voice began narrating the church’s origin. I talked about the wealthy von Schwarzental, the church’s exquisite architecture and how it had influenced our town’s history.
As I went on, I started to feel worse and worse. I was anxious, scared, like prey in front of a group of predators. When I came to the pictures of the church, the melody inside my heat started to get louder and louder. My head started to spin. For a moment, I was thrown off balance and took a staggering step forward.
No one said a word. No one reacted to me being ill. No one had seen it. They were all staring at the picture with wide eyes, sucking in this representation of their holiest of idols.
I went from picture to picture talking about the individual parts of the building, but my voice slowly gave up. I felt dazed, stunted, for a moment, I saw dots in front of my eyes.
I clicked through the remaining parts of the presentation faster and faster, rambling on, trying to make it to the end. All I wanted was to get out of here, to get some room to breathe. I didn’t want to be surrounded by this mad group of people anymore.
I was still not at the end when my legs started to get shaky. I felt sweaty, cold, and seriously sick. Finally, my stomach protested, and I fell to my knees, throwing up right in the middle of the living room.
“My god, what’s wrong with him?” someone called out.
Mom jumped off her seat right away, hurrying over to me. I saw other people doing the same.
I felt a dozen hands reach out to me, touching me and holding on to me. I saw faces in front of mine. Mrs. Mansfield, then Mr. Shaw, then an older lady. I cringed and tried to get away from them. Once more, I heaved and almost threw up again. I struggled against their restraining grips, trying desperately to get free.
“It’s alright, son, we’re trying to help,” I heard a voice as I was pulled back onto my feet.
Once more, I struggled, but I was too weak, too exhausted, too sick. Then, I saw Pastor Owens. He was the only one still sitting on the couch. He wasn’t moving, not saying a thing. There was no concern visible on his face. Instead, he smiled at me like he always did.
I don’t know when I passed out. I woke up on my bed. I felt terrible. When I tried to get up, my vision became blurry, and my head started to hurt right away. I fell back down on the bed and closed my eyes.
What the hell was happening to me?
I saw that someone else was in the room, but I couldn’t make out who it was. Was it? I tried to focus, but the blaring melody sent surge after surge of pain through my head. I heard words, but I couldn’t understand them.
I drifted in and out of sleep. This time there were no dreams, no images. There was only darkness.
“Think he can go?” I heard someone ask.
“He has to, it’s his duty,” another voice answered.
When I opened my eyes, I saw it was mom. She and Mr. Shaw were in my room. How much time had passed, I wondered.
“David! How are you doing?” mom asked, coming over to me.
I said nothing at first. I sat up in bed, looking at her. For a moment, my head was still spinning, but it soon vanished.
“I’m okay, I guess,” I said. “How late is-”
“That’s great!” mom called out. “It’s almost time for the mass to start.”
I was still not feeling too good, and it took my brain a while to understand what she was saying. I sank back into bed. No, I couldn’t go there. There was no way. The memories of the dream returned, and I shivered.
“Now David, get up and get ready!” mom called out once more.
“Mom, I don’t think-”
“Nonsense, David! We’re talking about the mass here!”
With that, she grabbed me by the arm and pulled me off the bed. I staggered for a moment and had to take a deep breath. No, I wasn’t feeling alright, no at all.
“Now get dressed, we’re leaving in ten minutes!”
I waited for them to leave, but only mom stepped outside.
“Now, son, you need any help?” Mr. Shaw asked me.
I wasn’t sure if it was meant as a joke. I shook my head and told him I’d be alright. Still, he stayed where he was. Not going to leave me by myself, I thought in frustration.
For a moment I stared at my phone. My first thought had been to see if Ethan had messaged me, but if Mr. Shaw saw, god knows what he’d do.
No, instead, I started to put on my Sunday cloth. I should’ve cared about Mr. Shaw being there, I should have protested, but I didn’t have the energy for it.
Once I was done, the man led me downstairs. Mom was already waiting for me.
“Come on now, both of you! We’re going to be late!”
She ushered me into the car, and we were on our way. As I sat there, I once more closed my eyes. My head was still spinning. Mom and Mr. Shaw seemed to be blissfully ignorant of it, or they simply didn’t care.
Instead, the two of them happily rambled on about today’s mass.
The moment we arrived I saw that the whole area in front of the church was buzzing with cars and people. You’d only ever saw that many people in one place during the mass. It was almost as if the whole town was here.
We’d barely gotten out of the car when Pastor Owens approached us.
“Nicole, John,” he greeted the two of them. Then his eyes came to rest on me.
“And David, happy to see you’re feeling better,” he said, giving me the same patronizing smile as always. I felt strangely itchy when his eyes focused on me.
“Well then, people, let’s go inside,” the pastor said in a loud voice.
With that, he spread out his arms in a grand gesture and motioned for everyone to enter the church.
Before I could even do a thing, Pastor Owens put his hands on my shoulders.
“Now, son, let’s not fret and turn from the light,” he whispered at me in a hard voice and pushed me forward. Mom, who walked next to me gave me a bright and happy smile. It was terrifying.
I started to shuffle around uncomfortable, twisting under the pastor’s hands, but it only resulted in his grip getting harder. His face was right next to my head, and I could feel his warm breath against my cheek. And then, as he pushed me through the large front door, I could’ve sworn, I heard him chuckle.
The moment I stepped into the church, my skin started to crawl. It felt almost as if my body was calling out to me, signaling me that this place was wrong. For a second, I felt sick again and staggered. I had to get out of here, I thought. When I turned around, though, I could see that Pastor Owens had already closed the heavy door behind us.
His eyes focused on me once more. He was still smiling, but this time, it was cruel and condescending.
He nodded towards mom and Mr. Shaw and the two of them led me to a seat and took place either side of me. Both of them watching me, smiling at me, but I knew it was fake. They were making sure I couldn’t get away.
As soon as Pastor Owens stepped towards the altar, the organ music started to play. It was the same damn melody I’d heard in my head for the past days.
Then, with a booming, loud voice, Pastor Owens started the sermon. Yet, I couldn’t understand him. The music was too loud, and with each passing moment, it grew in intensity.
It was reverberating inside of my brain, almost shaking me up from inside. I couldn’t help but cringe at the pain. I closed my eyes, and my hands wandered to my temples as the beautiful music continued to stab at my brain.
In a daze, I looked around how everyone else was reacting to it. How could they tolerate it? Yet, everyone was sitting quietly in their seats. They were all unmoving, as if in a trance. There was Nathan with his parents. A row behind me could see Craig Danes and Laura, and further ahead was Mrs. Mansfield. None of them were moving at all.
As I sat there, I felt myself getting sweaty. I shivered. I was about to get up, to run, but right at that moment, Pastor Owens eyes came to rest on me. He took one step towards me, then another. With each step, he continued his mad, inaudible rant. For what seemed like an eternity, he held my gaze, staring at me with wide, angry eyes. It was almost as if his rant was directed at me and only me.
It was like I was back in that mad dream of mine. For a moment, my vision turned blurry. I wasn’t sure what I saw anymore. Everything around me was shifting. With each one of the pastor’s screams, the air around him was moving.
No, not the air, I realized, the church itself. The wood paneling of the altar behind him was shifting and bulging.
I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out. I tried to get up once more, but my legs were wobbly and without power.
I started shaking. My heart was beating hard inside my chest. Why was I unable to move? I reached out to the seat ahead of me, trying to push myself up, but my arms too seemed to be without any strength.
I could do nothing but sit there. Nothing but listen to the music of the organ as it stabbed at my sanity again and again. I raised my hands to my ears as the tears streamed from my eyes. How was no one else feeling this? How could they all sit there in complete silence?
As I looked over to mom, I could see that her face showed an expression of endless bliss. She was staring ahead at nothing, entirely entranced by the pastor’s sermon and the music.
I don’t know how long I sat there, eyes closed, hands around the seat in front of me, praying for it to stop and to finally be over.
Only when the music stopped did I realize the mass was over. I was breathing heavily, panting, and shaking. What the hell had this been? What had just-?
“Now wasn’t that something,” mom called out turning over to me.
When she saw the state I was in her face turned from bliss to something else. There was a look of utter disappointment on her face that was soon replaced by one of worry.
“David, what’s the matter with you?” she asked in an alarmed voice. I couldn’t tell if it was genuine or not.
I couldn’t say anything. All I was able to do was to shake my head. I had to get up, I told myself. I had to get out of here! I needed air. Most important, though, I needed to get away from this place.
“He’s sweating, Nicole,” Mr. Shaw called out. “Boy, are you still sick?”
“I, I don’t,” I started but broke up.
I had a terrible headache due to the melody still reverberating inside my head. Before mom or Mr. Shaw could say anything else, I pushed past them. I hurried towards the open front door and went outside.
I didn’t care for the stares I got. I didn’t care for the whispers behind my back.
Once outside I greedily inhaled the air, and for a moment I started retching.
I took a few stumbling steps to get away, to make it down the street and to flee from all this. Before I’d taken more than a few steps, mom’s hand closed around my arm.
“David! You look terrible!”
“Just some fresh air,” was all I could bring out.
After a few more moments, I sat down on the grass, rubbing my temples to fight the terrible headache I was feeling.
Mom stood over me, but soon, she turned away. I looked after her as she walked over to Pastor Owens. The man had been watching me this whole time. His gaze was empty, without any sign of compassion or worry.
The two of them started to talk, and I could see mom look over towards me once, twice, and then a third time.
After a while, though, the two of them walked over to another person.
At first, I didn’t recognize her. Ethan’s mom looked like she’d aged at least a decade in those past weeks. She looked as bad as her son, no, even worse. She was restless, unkempt, and her hair was as wild as her eyes tired.
As the pastor and mom approached her, she cringed back a step.
As they started to talk to her, I fought myself up. With shaking legs I took a few steps forward. What were they talking about? I had to hear! Were they talking about Ethan?
I didn’t understand a thing, only bits, and pieces. There were too many people. All around me, people were gossiping and talking. Shut up, goddamnit!
A few more steps, I told myself, just a few more self. Once more, I staggered and almost feel.
“… can’t anymore,” I heard mom say at one point.
At that, Odette shook her head. What the hell was going on?
Then Pastor Owens said yet another thing. At this, I saw Odette’s face lose all color, and she gasped, putting her hand to her mouth.
At that moment, I froze up. I hadn’t heard most the exchange, but I’d heard enough.
“… to get rid of him,” Pastor Owens had said, showing Ethan’s mom the same patronizing smile as always.