Two police officers walked towards the fenced meadow. After inspecting a shearing pen with no clues, the elder sergeant led the way in his spring utility garb. His clipped black tie waved in the breeze, flapping at the rolled-up sleeves of his dark tactical PDU shirt. He recalled a patrol to the area from a few years back, but kept his mouth shut on the matter. Not all incidents needed to be reported.
He looked over at his stodgy partner. The trooper was wearing his winter uniform parka topped with a pristine peaked cap, and beads of perspiration accumulated where the glistening brim met the skin. The impression was inflamed by the unseasonably warm afternoon.
Passing the herd of sheep in their paddock, the sergeant noted that their shorn bodies were huddled at the furthest possible corner from the trough. They stood shivering and starving, pressed up against the wires of the dead fence, unwilling to venture closer.
Their decision was understandable. The stench of sulfur, scorched flesh, and carbonized earth grew so potent that both men began to cough, unable to scrape the thick macabre taste off their collective tongues. Noses tucked into elbows, the two ventured closer.
The two men stood around a pile of burnt offerings where a man once stood. Sticking out of the heap of human residue were two burnt leather work boots containing presumably whole feet laced tightly around ankles. At an inch above the sock line protruded dried muscle sticking to charred bone like greyed pieces of discarded barbecue. The rest of the cinder pile faded into a permanent shadow scorched over earth.
“He was in such a hurry he left his feet behind,” the trooper joked from beneath his handkerchief.
“Shut up Mark,” the sergeant said.
“Aw Mike, I’m just trying to—”
“Scan the area. See if you can find anything in the grass.”
“What should I be looking for?”
“A trail of gasoline, traces of white phosphorus, pieces of the body or an IED that could have exploded, anything that could have created a localized conflagration.”
“Right,” Mark said. He stared up at the sun, his face drooping like candlewax. “Do you think I could go to the car first? I left my bottle of water in the cup holder.”
“Start circling from this spot, about ten yards out,” Mike said, ignoring his partner. “Let me know if you see anything.”
Mark scurried about, listlessly unzipping his coat to let the breeze flap in and provide cool circulation. Mike crouched near the pile, examining the singed grass blades curled from the top-down due to an intense heat. Despite the wind blowing the finer bits of ash across the scene, the pattern was consistent. Like an atomic shadow the bleached chlorophyll formed an outline of a figure. Using his pen to filter through, all Mike could find in the pile were bone fragments and dead embers.
“I think I found something!” Mark cried.
Mike immediately stood up and looked over his shoulder, his eyes wide, his interest perked.
“It looks like it might be a finger. No. Nope. My bad. It’s moving. It’s just a bug.”
Mike rolled his eyes and returned to crouching over the pile, carefully sifting through the incinerated debris. Mark, tired and embarrassed, lifted off his hat and used it to wipe the sweat from his brow.
“Maybe it’s like the kid said,” he said, walking towards Mike.
“What do you mean no?”
“I mean no, it’s not like the kid said.”
“But what if we don’t find anything?”
“Even if we don’t find anything, the answer is no.”
“So, we’re not accepting his story?”
“Do you have any idea how hot a person needs to be to turn to dust?”
“Neither did I. I called the town’s funeral home and asked them for the temperature of their cremation ovens.”
“What did they say?”
“1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s hotter than lava. And it takes over three hours. According to the kid’s story this took seconds, less than a minute.”
“Yea, ‘oh.’ The kid’s story is shit. But we can’t hang him on it until we have some evidence, so do some goddamn police work.”
Mike returned to investigating the boots but could hear still hear Mark’s heavy breathing. He stood up to confront his partner.
“Why aren’t you moving?”
“What about witnesses?” Mark pleaded.
“What about them?”
“Weren’t there any? Can’t I do that?”
“Thompson’s inside talking with the victim’s wife, questioning her as we speak.”
“There’s no one else?”
“Not a soul—unless you count them,” Mike said, pointing to the herd. They were still huddled, pecking at the sullied yellowed hay beneath them.
“What about the kid? Can I question him?”
“We’re keeping him sequestered until the detective gets here. What we need to do is gather as much information in advance so that when the kid is faced with everything we’ve got he confesses.”
“Oh, that’s smart. When’s the detective getting here?”
“Soon. Since no one in the precinct knows how to handle this we requested one from the county.”
“What are we going to tell him when he arrives?”
Mike let out an audible sigh, his shoulders clenching with tension.
“I don’t know, Mark,” he snapped. “I don’t have a fucking clue what we tell him. But we’re not going to tell him that there was a guy here and then there wasn’t, that he disappeared in seconds, that he spontaneously combusted because of reasons that don’t make sense.”
Mark looked at the distance, then looked in the opposite direction where they parked the car.
“Can I please go back to the car?” he whined. “I need to get rid of this jacket if I’m going stay out here.”
“What is wrong with you? Do you need perfect conditions to succeed? Just do your job.”
“Hey man, I do a good job.”
“If the job’s loitering when parked eating a sandwich. Do me a favor, pretend to be good at your job over there.” Mike pointed at the open pasture several hundred yards away.
“What am I going to do over there?”
Mike looked up to the sky, exasperated. He turned his back to Mark.
“Fine. Go back to the car,” he said. “Call the forensics guy. Maybe he can do something with this pile of bullshit.”
Mark smiled and began walking back to the car. He looked over to the mass of sheep and noticed that the entirety of the flock had turned their heads down towards the center, encircling something that he could not see. He walked over to the pen and opened its door to get a closer look.
Forcing his way through the animals at the outer edge, Mark moved closer to the center. The sheep had tightly huddled around whimpering and weak animal, their heads bent down and their mouths ruminating in unison.
“Hey Mike, remember in the kid’s story, the dog that was acting funny?” Mark yelled, pushing a begrudged sheep out of his way. “Have you seen it anywhere?”
“No,” Mike yelled back. “Maybe it ran off.”
“I don’t think it ran off,” Mark said to himself as he finally made his way to the inner circle. At the center was Buddy. She had been severely injured, the lacerations from the electricity and the trampling visible and deep. The sheep had bundled closer to her to keep her warm, their tongues licking her wounds as she lay panting.
“Hey Mike,” Mark called out. “I found the dog!” He bent down and picked up Buddy. She wagged her tail as she was carried.
“Hey Mike, look.” Mark said, holding Buddy as she licked his hand.
Mike ignored him, prodding the pile with this pen, rummaging deeper until he hit a piece of metal. He lifted the pen to see its dusty barrel encircled by a gold band.
“Jesus,” Mark said. “It’s the man’s wedding ring.”
Leslie was sitting at her dining room table, a cup of coffee in her hand. Officer Thompson sat opposite her, scribbling notes on a pad with his pen.
“There wasn’t a fight or anything last night, anything that could have set Ethan off?”
“The only thing that happened last night was Terrance asking Ethan to help him shear the sheep. Ethan complained that it was a little early in the season but outside of that they were fine.”
“Yes, kids do that. People do that. It was nothing to write home about.”
Officer Thompson kept writing, keeping his head down as he wrote.
“Ethan had a brother, did he not?”
“Yes. Owen. He was Ethan’s older brother.”
“And he died in an accident?”
“They were playing on a frozen lake when the ice broke.”
“And Ethan survived while Owen did not?”
“What are you getting at officer?”
Officer Thompson lifted his head, pointing his pen to her hand holding the coffee mug.
“Do you mind if I ask what happened to your hand?”
Leslie looked down at her wrapped palm, a bloody mark running along it lengthwise.
“I cut myself when I was cooking.”
“When you were cooking? Across the palm?”
“Yes. I was cutting tomatoes. How much longer is this going to take?”
“I’m pretty much finished,” he said, clicking his pen.
“When can I see my son?”
“Since he’s the only suspect—I mean witness—we need to keep him separated until the detective arrives. Depending on how that goes it is more than likely that you son will be taken into custody until we can figure out the best way to proceed. Does your family have an attorney?”
“No, do I need to get one?”
“The state may appoint one. I will let you know if it comes to that.”
A knock at the door. The officer walked from the kitchen and through the hallway to open it.
“Hi,” the girl said, her puzzled look greeting the officer at the door.
“And you are?” the officer asked.
“I’m Kay Taft. I live down the street.”
“I’m sorry miss, but this is a formal investigation. We are not able to allow any visitors—”
“Ethan and I are friends.”
“When was the last time you saw the suspect?” the officer asked.
“My son is not a suspect,” Leslie scolded from the other room.
“When was the last time you saw the…kid,” the officer stammered.
“You mean Ethan? Yesterday. I saw him when I went to visit a teacher at school.”
“Anything strange happen?”
“No. We barely spoke.”
“Did you see anything this morning?”
“No. What happened?”
“I’m sorry miss but you’re going to have to step out of this area—”
Leslie stood and walked into the hallway.
“It’s alright officer. I’d like to speak with Kay in private if possible.”
The two women looked at the officer.
“Is that alright?” Leslie asked. “Or am I under investigation, too?”
Officer Thompson rubbed the back of his neck.
“I’ll take a walk I guess.”
He stepped out and closed the door behind him. The two waited for a moment.
“Is it safe to talk?” Kay asked.
“These officers are buffoons,” Leslie replied, motioning for Kay to join her in the kitchen.
“I take that as a yes,” Kay said. She shuffled into the kitchen and took the vacated seat opposite her. “How are you doing?”
“Do you want some coffee, tea?” Leslie said, anxiously pushing herself out of her chair.
“Sure. Green tea if you have it.”
Leslie put on the electric kettle and removed a box of green tea bags from the drawer before turning to Kay. She crossed her arms.
“So,” Kay replied. “What do we do now?”
“We? My dear Kay, you’re on your own now. I’m done.”
“After they take Ethan all that will be left is me. And we both know they want nothing to do with me.” Leslie looked down at her cup, the tanned milky brew chilling in her hands. “I imagine they think I’ll be easy to dispose of, easy to ruin. I imagine they think I’ll run. I imagined it, too. Now, it’s my reality.”
“Where will you go?” Kay asked.
“Did they tell you to ask me that?” Leslie countered. Kay stared back before looking before nodding silently. Leslie bit her lip and looked to the damaged ceiling.
“I haven’t decided. People will think it suspicious that I ran off, but who could remain and live here anyway? Perhaps that is what they would prefer, for me to stay and grow tired of it, eventually taking care of their loose-end with a razor in the tub. But once they have Ethan there’s no reason for me to remain. This place reeks of death. And I’ve sacrificed too much to follow suit.”
The water began to boil, the shrill sound of its roil cutting through the heavy tone. Leslie lifted the kettle and poured the contents over Kay’s teabag before passing her the mug. Kay stared at the shadows of the water’s current playing off the bottom of the ceramic, cracks in the light that gave way to steeped color.
“Do you regret it?” Kay asked softly.
Leslie’s eyes were tearful, but she was careful not to let one slip.
““At the time I decided a life like this was an impossibility. When I started I was a little older than you are now. It is funny how desperation will guide you. I say funny. I mean shameful. At first, I just thought I was being pragmatic. A victim of circumstance. Trading feeling wanted for feeling needed. Now I’m neither. But that was the bargain. That was the deal.
“But no. Before my days were filled with ugliness and horror. Now less so. I have memories instead of wistful possibilities. I lived instead of dreaming. I had a kind husband, children that I loved. I knew it would end, but we all live with that knowledge. You just ignore it until…”
Kay looked at Leslie, the sorrow dripping from her face. She took the opportunity to lighten the mood.
“Think of the future.” Kay said. “You have money and time now, your time. You could get married again, someone that you get to choose and love.”
Leslie offered a sullen smile.
“Marriage is for people too weak to live without the comfort of being attached. I’m afraid that weakness has been burned from me. Anyways, I’m too old to still believe in such antiquated notions.”
“You’re not too old.”
“Too modern then.”
“What about a boyfriend?”
Leslie stifled a short, cynical laugh.
“Kay, there’s only one type of boyfriend—the jealous kind. And if he’s not jealous, he’s not really your boyfriend. I don’t think I’ll find another one of those.”
Kay sipped at her amber liquid, the steam cresting at her pores.
“I always forget—what’s the difference between jealous and envy?”
“Jealousy is a game for three. Envy is what’s between you and me.”
Kay looked at Leslie, her eyes fierce with recognition.
“What do you mean?”
“It means you play both sides too often,” she said, taking a sip of her cold coffee. “I’ve made my bed and watched it burn. But I can still have my fun, wrecking what I can. It’s why cheaters exist—because they always win. But you knew that already.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do,” Leslie continued, taking another bitter sip. “At what point did you stop accepting the shit they were feeding you?”
Kay kept her lips sealed.
“No more kind words of encouragement? Has that pond already dried up? Well, when you’re no longer the beneficiary of kindness and generosity all that’s left is knowledge. You are clever, Kay. I’ve been where you are. But when they recruited me I never imagined that they would be willing to tap anyone as young as you. When I realized what you were that’s when I knew there would be no place for me.”
Kay looked at Leslie, her face barren of pity.
“I never had a mother,” Kay said. “I always wanted one. But I sure am glad I didn’t have a mother like you. Pouring her insecurities about the world into my little head just so that they could turn true.”
Leslie then put down her cup and reached across the table to grab Kay by the wrist, her nails digging into her skin, keratin hooks grazing across fish scales.
“You think you won’t have to sacrifice?” Leslie said. “You think that what you want is more important than what I want? They will tear you apart, break you into pieces just so that they can have the opportunity to throw it all away. You will taste misery, Kay. You need to strip yourself down, tear away everything you’ve trusted. Return to the vacuum and build yourself back up with what’s right.
“There’s a finite amount of happiness in the world and we all just keep stealing it from each other. This life is hard.”
Kay pulled her arm away from Leslie, nail marks dug red imprinted into her forearm.
“For you,” Kay replied.
They sat in the silence. A knock came at the door. The two women turned their heads simultaneously at the sound. Officer Thompson entered, with Mike and Mark following behind carrying tripods with affixed floodlights.
“I’m sorry ladies, but we’re going to have to use this room.” He turned to Leslie. “Mrs. Sonder, I’ve been told that you have family waiting for you in town. One of my partners will escort you.”
“And Ethan?” Leslie asked.
“The detective just arrived. He’s going to speak with Ethan. We’ll let you know what happens.”
“I’ll show my way out,” Kay said, sliding past the officer.
“Take care,” Leslie called out coolly from behind.
Kay said nothing back.
Ethan was seated at the kitchen table, his seat still warm from his mother’s body. His forearms and hands were bandaged up and laid out in front of him, their blistered skin lacquered with gauze and medical wrap. His face was burned, his eyes were red. Dried salty streaks glistened over his cheeks as the flood lamp lights bore their way on to him, casing the rest of the kitchen in shadow. He barely lifted his stare as Officer Thompson finished reading him his Miranda warning.
“Do you understand each of these rights I have explained to you?”
Ethan kept his chin down.
“Son? Do you understand what I just said?”
“Yes,” Ethan said softly.
“Having these rights in mind, do you wish to talk to us now?”
Ethan sat in silence before lifting his head to glare.
“We want this to be over as soon as possible Ethan,” Officer Thompson continued. “But I need you to say yes for us to continue.”
“No,” Ethan replied.
The officer sighed. The detective, wearing plainclothes outside of his custom leather shoes, had been standing in the shadows, listening. At hearing Ethan’s despondency, he walked over to the officer and spoke softly. The officer nodded before turning to Ethan.
“We have a detective here. His name is,” Officer Thompson turned to the detective. “What’s your name?”
“Now Detective Deiss is going to talk to you. He’s not going to ask you any questions. He’s just going to talk. You listen.”
With that the officer looked back at the detective, giving him a thumbs-up. The man looked back to the officer with an empty stare.
“Do you think we could have some privacy?” Detective Deiss asked.
Officer Thompson bit his tongue.
“Sure, I’ll be right outside.”
The detective waited until the officer’s footsteps disappeared behind the closed the front door, then began turning off the floodlights while speaking in a steady warm tone.
“Hello Ethan,” he said. “My name is Lester. Do you mind if I take a seat?”
Lester sat opposite Ethan, who sat silent with his head facing the table, unwilling to look the man in the eye.
“One of my habits is that I tend to dwell on the past and wonder what could have been if I had done something else. Do you ever do that Ethan?”
Ethan remained silent.
“A longtime ago when I was younger, I believed that all I had to do to succeed in life was be kind and work hard,” Lester continued. “It took me a longtime to realize that’s not how the world works. Some people get ahead by doing less and stealing more. So, I became self-reliant. Others became threatened by that, grouping together to keep me in check, under their shoe. I learned that people would rather be right than be true. They find people like them and spread their lies so that they could create a world where they are never wrong. But sooner or later, people realize. The only prophecies that come true are the self-fulfilling ones.”
“Do you know what a self-fulfilling prophecy is, Ethan?”
Ethan’s head still pointed to the ground. He shook his head no, his demeanor softening.
“It’s when you say you’re going to do something and then you work hard to make it happen. Do you know of anyone who’s ever done that?”
Ethan paused for a moment.
“My dad,” he said.
“Your dad,” Lester said softly. “Did you love your dad, Ethan?”
“Yes,” Ethan replied, his voice cracking.
“I know you did. But were you responsible for his death?”
Ethan whimpered but swallowed his cry, his body shaking from the effort.
“Ethan, be honest now,” Lester said, pushing himself out of his seat to place hand on Ethan’s shoulder.
“I don’t know,” Ethan said, tears overwhelming his eyes. “I didn’t do anything. I saw it happen, but I couldn’t do anything to stop it.”
“It’s alright, Ethan. It’s alright.”
“I wish it was me,” Ethan wept. “I deserve it. Not my dad. Not my brother. Me. I shouldn’t be here. And now I keep getting punished for it.”
The detective then crouched and lowered his head until he was at Ethan’s level.
“Sometimes I think about how I shouldn’t be here. How I’m a mistake, a problem for people. An existence that never should have been. Have you ever thought about that? Have you ever thought about killing yourself?”
Ethan sat in his pain, his head down as tremors of fear and ignorance blurred his vision with cry. Slowly he looked up at Lester and nodded.
Lester nodded back.
“I know I have. I think everyone has at one point or another. It’s a choice we all think about. It might be the only real choice any of us have, ending what we’ve been given. Sometimes it might even be the right choice. A lot of people sacrifice themselves—for other people, for the greater good. Altruism, they call it. But if you take your life like this, it won’t help anyone. And everyone you ever loved, even if they are gone, they disappear with you too.
“I’m going to let you in on a little secret, Ethan. This whole world might be better off without you, without me, without any of us. None of us deserve it. None of us should be here. But maybe that’s why we are still here. Because we need to be.”
Ethan continued to weep, the tears streaming from his eyes to his chin, their saltiness collecting over his lips.
“Now that sadness, that depth of blue—it will never go away,” Lester said. “It will always be there with you. Right now, it’s new. You’ve never felt it quite like this before. Hopefully you never will. But you need to learn to live with it. Because it will never stop hurting. It comes with the body. It comes with the soul. And if you’re going to continue living you’re going to have to face that reality. Because no one can save you from that feeling. You’ve got to handle it on your own.”
Lester walked back to his seat, watching Ethan slowly begin to compose himself.
“Ethan, I have two more questions about you and about your father. You don’t have to answer them, but I’m still going to ask because it would really help you and me out. Okay?
“First—have you seen anything strange with the behavior of animals, insects?”
Ethan immediately looked up. His eyes were bright, alive and aware.
“Yes,” he said.
“With you or your father?”
“Both. I mean, it was different, but yes.”
Lester winced and continued.
“Have you felt any acute sensitivity to stimulus, any severe allergic reactions that you otherwise did not have?”
“That’s good, that’s good,” Lester sighed. “We still have time. Alright, Ethan. I’m going to be honest with you. You’re in a tough spot. You will not survive on your own. That’s why I’m here. To help. I can save you Ethan, if only for a moment. But you must decide. You have to choose. And it has to start now. Otherwise, you are on your own. And if you want all this to end, it will. Sooner than later.”
Ethan paused, thinking.
“Will I go like my father?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen what you’ve seen. But I’ve felt it. Felt that pain. And I can help you stop it, handle it, treat it. But there are no guarantees. You need to choose whether you want to continue living or not. Are you willing to fight the good fight?”
Ethan cracked a smile.
“Good knows good?” he asked.
“Yes,” Lester smiled back. “Good knows good. But are you willing to be fearless?”
“Do you know what you’ll become?” Lester asked.
“What I need to be,” Ethan replied.
“Let’s get started then.”
Lester helped Ethan to his feet and handcuffed his arms behind his back. Guiding him to the front door, Lester pushed it opened to see two officers arresting a man with a green tie.
“What’s going on?” Lester asked.
“A little after you got started this guy pulled up posing as a detective,” Mike said. “Luckily I recognized him from a few years back. A real pain in the ass, this guy. A custodial sentence for impersonating an officer. Unless you know him?”
Ethan looked at the man and squinted, a faint recollection simmering in his memory. Mr. Green looked back at Ethan and Lester, his grimacing cheeks red with embarrassment. Lester smiled.
“Can’t say that I do,” Lester replied.
The officers forced Mr. Green into the back of their cruiser. Closing the door, Officer Thompson turned to Lester.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“Not well,” Lester said. “We’ll need to appoint him a defense attorney at the county courthouse. A trip to the hospital would make sense too, make sure there’s nothing wrong with him. Do you have any paperwork for me?”
Officer Thompson looked at Mike. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Don’t look at me. You were the one who talked with the mom.”
I’m on my way to the station,
“I’ll check inside,” Officer Thompson sighed, shuffling up the house steps.
Mike helped Ethan into Lester’s car. Before he closed the door, Mike rubbed Ethan’s brown-haired noggin.
“I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through son,” he said. “I’ll let you mom know what’s happening. Keep your chin up. It’s almost over.”
Ethan nodded, knowing a lie when he heard one. He then watched.
Lester had taken a long turn around the police cruiser to grin once more at Mr. Green.
“Hello,” Lester mocked, his fingers rapping the glass. “How is everything?”
“You should have stayed Lester,” Mr. Green whispered back, his head cocked, his eyes angry and wicked. “This won’t end well.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Lester replied. “All of you against me—how’s that working out?”