Publisher’s Note: Mature content warning. This is the second of two-parts.
The streets were cold and dead and smelled of farming. The yellow light from the lamps was mystical as it melted along the brick and glass of the old buildings that lined Main Street. Young David heard a dog bark, then a ratty muffler in the distance, then quiet again. He was wrapped up tight in the blanket with only his face poking out and it made him look like a little old nun as he wandered down the sidewalk toward the Octerville General Merchandise Store. He peered in through the large and dusty pane of glass at the front and looked up at a headless mannequin wearing a green dress and clutching a purse with wax fingers, and it was so foreign and odd to him.
He looked down one side of the street and then the other. All was as still as a snoozing drunk gnome in a woodsy log cabin and so he went to the front door of the store and tugged on it. It was locked tight. He peered in and it was dark except for the ghostly red and white glow from an emergency EXIT sign near the back somewhere. He rattled the door again. Nothing. He stepped back and looked up. There were some dark windows above, vacant and with no curtains. He didn’t look long because he was afraid some sinister face would suddenly appear and forever tarnish his soul with insensible fear. He glanced at his watch again — nearly 1 a.m. He coughed and then went to find a way in from the alley side.
David climbed onto a stack of old pallets and broke a small window with the butt of his flashlight. He cleared the broken glass away and boosted himself through the opening. He landed on a cold tile floor in a stock room and when he flicked on his flashlight he was surrounded by boxes and shelves, and it smelled old and musty.
He made his way out into the dark store and trained his beam all over the merchandise until it fell upon what he was in search of — clothes. He felt a warm giddiness all over his body and he shed the blanket and knelt on the floor in front of a display of boys’ socks. He ran his hand over the smooth packages and squeezed at the material through the plastic. He sat down, cross-legged, on the worn wooden floor and tore open a package of white crew socks. He marveled at their softness and put them right against his face and breathed them in. David quickly undid the torn pillowcases from his feet and stuffed his toes inside a fresh pair of socks and he giggled to himself. “This is wonderful,” he breathed.
He stood up and made his way to where the underwear was. He was amazed by the array of different colors and styles and when he found some he really liked, he tore that package open as well and quickly stepped into a pair of blue ones. He shined his flashlight upon his own reflection in a tall mirror and studied himself. He thought the material felt good against his butt cheeks and private parts and he wanted more. He scanned the shelves further and found a nice brown V-neck sweater which he immediately worked over his head and down around his torso. It was so fresh and new and felt so warm against his skin.
Next, he hunted for a pair of soft blue jeans and when he found the perfect pair that fit him just right, he again looked at himself in the tall mirror. He admired himself; he felt whole and real and human for once. He searched for and found the perfect black belt and he worked it through the loops of the blue jeans and cinched it tight. Now he needed some shoes, and when he came upon a pair of brown hiking boots, he felt his life was nearly complete. He laced them up good and snug and then walked all over the store to test them out. Lastly, he searched for the perfect coat so that he wouldn’t have to be so damn cold all the time. He found one that was a glossy red color and puffy and it felt so good to be encased within it that he imagined he may never be able to take it off.
He was a real little boy now, he thought to himself, and there was no guilt in his heart and there was no taste of sin in his soul. He felt warm. He felt happy. He felt alive and at peace. It was good not to always be naked, he thought. His father had been wrong all along. The old ways were foolish.
He went to the front door and yawned as he looked out at the dim glow of the empty street. He glanced at his watch — it was nearly 2 a.m., and he was getting sleepy. He decided to nap a bit before heading back home. He laid out his blanket on the floor and stretched out on it, one hand behind his head for support and his body cozy in the new clothes. David aimed the flashlight at the old white ceiling and stared at the circle of light until his eyes grew too heavy and he fell asleep.
It was a long while later when his eyes suddenly popped open, and he sat straight up. He suddenly became aware of a light in the store that hadn’t been there before. He rubbed his eyes and tried to focus toward the front. Dawn was beginning to crack open like a fresh breakfast egg, and he realized it was the sun lighting the space around him. He quickly scrambled to his feet and went to the front door and peered out. The town was beginning to glaze over with daylight and there were even a few cars rolling down the road and some people huddling around and talking outside the café across the street. His heart began to thump in his chest, and he quickly gathered his things and made his way to the window in the back where he came in. He poked his head out into the alley and looked both ways. There was a rough-looking cat rummaging around in a trash can but no people. He squeezed out of the opening and onto the pile of pallets and ran off toward the edge of town and back toward the country with great haste and nerves on fire.
When David climbed back in through his bedroom window, he was shocked to see Papa Wesley sitting on the edge of his bed. He looked sore and tired, and his usually perfectly combed hair was rattled. David froze as his father sternly beamed at him.
“Where have you been?” he demanded to know.
David felt as if he had stopped breathing and he couldn’t speak.
“Well!?” Papa Wesley yelled. “I want an answer and do not lie to me, boy!”
“I couldn’t sleep and so I went walking.”
Papa Wesley got up off the bed and went at the boy and harshly grabbed him by the arm. “And what is all this!?” he questioned him, his other hand moving in front of him and his eyes rolling all over the clothes the boy was wearing. “Where did you get these, these… horrible things!?”
Young David began to cry as he looked up at his angry father. “I coveted them, sir… From the general store. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just wanted to wear some clothes for once. I just wanted to be warm and normal.”
Papa Wesley whipped his heavy hand across the boy’s face, and David fell to the floor. “Take them off! Take it all off!”
Young David got to his feet and stripped off all the clothes until he was naked and shaking. Papa Wesley grabbed him, pulled him to the bed and forced him over his knee. He began slapping at the boy’s rear end, harder and harder and harder until David’s cheeks were lobster red and nearly steaming.
When he was finished, he pushed the boy to the floor and moved to the door. He turned to him, flustered and boiling over. “You will stay in this room until I tell you otherwise. You will get nothing to eat while you sit here and think about the wrong you have done. In the meantime, your mother and I will be discussing a proper punishment. Do you understand me!?”
“Yes sir,” the boy mumbled through a face full of painful tears. “Please forgive me for disappointing you.”
Papa Wesley huffed and went out the door, slamming it hard behind him.
The punishment had been decided and Papa Wesley went straight to the task of constructing the wooden cross on which the boy would hang. Mother Ruth and Camille went to work in one of the barren sunflower fields digging a deep hole for the bottom of the cross to rest in. Even in the chill of December, their naked bodies were dappled with sweat as they bit into the hard earth with their shovels. Camille stopped to rest and wiped at her mouth. “Is father really going through with this?” she asked her mother.
Mother Ruth didn’t look up from the ground. “The law is the law,” she sternly said. “For the wages of sin is death.” She grunted and drove her shovel in hard.
“But what of forgiveness?” Camille wondered aloud.
Mother Ruth stopped and rested on the handle of the shovel. “Forgiveness, dear child, isn’t always enough to make right a sin such as this.” She went back to digging and Camille’s eyes strayed up toward the house and to the window of her brother’s bedroom where he was locked in. She saw him there framed within the glass and looking out sad and lost. Camille tried to smile but she couldn’t do it and instead turned away and went back to helping her mother with the hole.
It was Christmas morning when Mother Ruth went to David’s room to get him ready. She dressed the boy in all the clothes he had stolen as Papa Wesley had instructed. She looked at him and hugged him one last time and gently wiped at his wet eyes with her thumb. “Your father wants you to wear these as a reminder of the bad things you have done,” she said to him. “To carry your wrongdoing into eternity.”
David looked at her, his face smothered in fear. “Mama?”
“Am I going to die?”
Mother Ruth put her hands on his shoulders to steady him and looked directly into his eyes. “Yes, David. You’re going to die.”
“And you’re going to let it happen?”
“You broke the law… And in more ways than one. I cannot go against your father’s command. He is our spiritual guidepost. I will pray that you’ll be at peace soon enough.” She bit at her bottom lip. “But it is not up to me how much you will burn. That falls on the judgment of the congregation of the Lord.”
She took the boy by the hand and led him downstairs and out of the house to where Papa Wesley and Camille were waiting in the yard, the freshly hewn cross laid out on the ground. Mother Ruth paused on the porch.
“Bring him over woman, and help us tie him down,” Papa Wesley ordered.
David began to struggle as she moved him down the steps and into his father’s waiting grasp. “Now, now boy,” he said. “It will do you no good to fight.” He forced the boy down onto the wood and Camille and Mother Ruth held him as Papa Wesley began to work the ropes around him. He tied his legs. He tied his arms. He tied his waist. He tied his neck. Once he was secure, the three lifted the cross and carried it toward the field. David screamed out as they went. “No! No! No! A thousand and one pardons father! Please don’t do this! It is madness!”
They ignored his pleas and brought him to the place in the field where the hole was dug. They put the bottom of the cross in and worked together to make it erect. Camille filled the hole in with dirt and rocks and packed it firm as Papa Wesley and Mother Ruth steadied the beam until the cross stood on its own. When the work was done, they stepped back and looked up at the helpless weeping boy, his strength already failing in his futile struggle to escape.
“May God have mercy on your soul, my son,” Papa Wesley said, and he spat at the ground in defiance.
Mother Ruth and Camille began to cry, and Papa Wesley touched them and turned them away. “Do not look upon him any longer,” he said. “It is out of our hands now. It is done. But alas, be bright now, for it is Christmas… Let us return to the house and open our gifts.”
It was late May and Camille was wandering through the fields trimming and cutting with her new Christmas clippers. She made her way into the sunflower field where the cross still stood and looked up at her dead brother. The clothes were tattered and weather-worn and the once youthful body was now decayed and gruesome. She turned away and dropped to the ground to play with some dirt. She closed her eyes and turned her face toward the sun and the warmth felt good on her skin. She ran a hand across her belly where the child was now bubbling away like an alien in a liquid gel incubator. She thought about how Papa Wesley assured her it was the proper thing to do, how it was her duty to bear a new child for the family to replace the old. She thought about her mother and how she had laid there beside her as it went on, holding her hand and instructing her.
A wind took hold of her hair and moved it. Camille opened her eyes, and everything was the same. She could not wish it all away. The good Lord had denied her prayer. She clipped away a little weed right in front of her, stood up, and wandered slowly back to the house where she lived for the rest of her life, naked and afraid.