It’s been dozens of years since I ever heard the name, and there was no reason for me to hear it. Even in a very small town and a very small county, there are people you’ve got so little in common with that spending twelve years in the public school system means you discover there not only is nothing in common but likely never will be. His name was Van, which was short for some family name, and to me, family names are just a lack of imagination. Family names once meant something with titles or things like that, but seriously, I think names ought to be legally binding for five years and then everyone ought to have the option of changing. His name, though might have sounded Dutch, he said it was from a family from the English moors. I had to look it up, to find out what a moor was.
The schism occurs somewhere around the seventh or eighth grade, maybe earlier, but there were those of us who destined to drink, and smoke pot, and do those things they had tried to indoctrinate us against, and there were those who were not going to do those things. I was the standard bearer of the drinkers, the smokers, and those who were going to try the things that terrified the others. Van was on the other side, soundly, and definitively. While I was going shots of tequila on top of the school on a Saturday night he was a youth counselor for a local church. If I kept a bag with the words he and I exchanged in it I wouldn’t be able to make out a decent grocery list of the contents. After High School he joined the military, I cannot remember which branch, and I never thought I would see him again.
I started seeing a woman, named Kerri, who was a nurse, and she worked some in Hospice, and one day she asked me, tell me where did you go to High School again? What was the name of that little town? What year did you graduate? I was nearly fifty years old and those questions slowly faded away from conversation decades ago. “There’s a man in Hospice, dying of cancer, and he told me today that he went to your school, and graduated the same year.” Kerri looked at me with a very odd expression on her face, “He asked me to ask you if you remembered Lacey Warren.”
We went to see Van the next day and I wasn’t sure it was the same person. Over thirty years had passed and the disease that raged inside of him had changed his facial expression as surely as three decades had changed his body. He was always tall and thin, but now he was a Death Camp prisoner, inside his own body, and it was not long at all before his execution. The tubes had been removed. All attempts to keep life in shell were abandoned and only pain medications were being given.
“I retired here,” Van said without bothering with introduction, “and I spent my entire life trying to become the person you never thought about being.” He laughed and started coughing. “But now, after getting morphine and OxyContin, I wonder if you weren’t right. I understand the draw now. It’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? You can be alive and not feel pain. I had no idea such a thing was possible.
When Lacey disappeared, I prayed that I would be the one who found her. I wanted to be the hero. I wanted to be the one who carried her to her parents. I thought it would be something that proved that God meant for me to good things, and that people would see it in me.” Van coughed hard, and then closed his eyes. Briefly, I thought he might have died.
“You were there,” Van opened his eyes and they were filled with hate, “and you were going to ruin it for me. How could someone like you be part of God’s Plan? I spent my night in prayer and reading the Bible and you stole all the baseball equipment the day before the playoffs. We forfeited that game. I know you did it. Everyone knew you did it. But it all reappeared the day after. I have to know, how did you do it?” He coughed again, and once again, I thought he was dead. His eyes opened again. “Tell me,” he rasped.
“I used a bench as a ladder, and I hid it on top of the ceiling tiles,” I told him. “It was hanging over their heads the entire time they were looking for it. They wouldn’t let me play, so I decided not to let them play.”
“That’s defined your mindset,” Van tried to sneer at me, “you were a vengeful and demonic young man.”
“What happened to Lacey?” I asked.
“I found her,” Van said. “There was an old shed, you remember the old shed don’t you?”
“You and those potheads you led around like zombies where right there, and I found here, but I knew you and the others would claim you helped find her so I didn’t say anything. Your selfishness infected me. I didn’t want you to have anything to do with the rescue. I thought she was sleeping so I didn’t say anything.” Van coughed hard and tears came out of his eyes. “I went back. It was no more than an hour later, and Lacey was gone.”
“Van, it’s the morphine,” I told him, “Lacey was found miles away from that area, I remember that, she was found in Seminole County, it was an hour away. A six year old isn’t walking that far.”
“She was left in that shed, and it was there she was murdered,” Van said. “Our Pastor, Billy Womack did it. He moved the body. You remembered he killed himself? When we left the shed that day I told him we didn’t find her, and I saw something in his eyes, I didn’t know what it was, but he lingered around where we parked. I left and came back and he was gone. Lacey was, too. I went through the shed, and the woods, and I thought it was my fault she was dead. The next day I sought out the Pastor to tell him what had happened, and he thought I came to confront him. He confessed to me and then shot himself.” Van was shaking with tears and a sound came from his soul, the sound of a dying man whose pain could not be slacked anymore. “You’ve never feared Hell, have you?”
“No, it doesn’t exist.” I said.
“I have discovered the solace of drugs and atheism,” Van laughed, “in the final moment of my life. Tell Lacey’s parents to forgive me.” And he his eyes remained open, fixed, but his breathing had stopped.
“Are you going to tell her parents,” Kerri asked me as we drank. She told me she never drank after a death, but in this case she would make an exception.
“I’m not sure,” I replied.
“Van was telling the truth when he said that I was there, at that shed, and I remember him saying there wasn’t anything inside of it,” I told her, “and we tracked north, towards the river to look for her. But Womack didn’t stick around after we searched that area.” I told her.
“Are you certain?” Kerri asked.
“Yep,” I replied. “Womack was a closet pot head and I was his connection. He gave me a ride home that day, and we took the scenic route to burn a joint or three. Van was lying about Womack moving the body, and I think he was lying about everything else, too.”
“You think Van killed her?”
“I think Van killed her, and then hid the body in Seminole County.” I said. “And he went to Womack for spiritual guidance and whatever Womack told Van it was bad enough for Van to kill him.”
“Damn.” Kerri took a hit off the bottle and handed it to me.