“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ~Edmund Burke
I’d never seen a dead body before, and the sight of him lying there must’ve sent me into shock. I stared, mute, unable to believe it was really a human being before me, hogtied to a pole, warning us—of something. I looked at my counselor, Mr. Jansen, the one in charge of us “Witnesses for Christ.” I didn’t feel like a witness. I felt like a bloody idiot staring at some murdered kid like he was the newest exhibit in the science museum back home.
It had been my mom’s great idea to expand my horizons. “Get out and see the world. Find out what is real. Discover your potential.” She’s got a million of ‘em. Brilliant ideas to transform me from an ordinary, blemished teen dressed in cheap clothes into the hero of the week. After all, we’re fed the Hero’s Vision from infancy – Be all you can be. No one can stop you. No limits to your horizons. And all that crap. Apparently, this kid met his limit. At gunpoint by the look of it.
Mr. Jansen glanced at the soldier with the biggest gun—the one who was supposed to be on our side. He was a big guy. Even his muscles had muscles. But his eyes gleamed like dead stones. He didn’t turn and explain. He didn’t offer us a pep talk. He just spoke in his guttural way so that even Mr. Jansen could understand. “Not. One. Word.”
Mr. Jansen obeyed. Pale and shaking, he directed the four of us from Team Gabriel to step aside and head back to our tents. I was glad to obey. I hardly wanted to ruffle any feathers here in the wilds of wherever the blank I was. Heck, I hadn’t learned anyone’s name because I could hardly pronounce a word of their language. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for this real-ness.
Three more days…two more days…one more day. Like a mantra, I counted the allotted time before we could return to my version of reality. Yet, I knew deep inside that somehow my reality had changed. It now included a dead kid hogtied to a pole. I left my tent during recreation time and hunted up our guard. It wasn’t hard. He stood a foot taller than everyone else.
“Mr. uh….” I shuffled from foot-to-foot.
“Kohl.” He peered down at me like I was one of those scurvy dogs they like to kick around. Or poison.
“Yeah, well, I was just wondering, if you could, sort of, explain what happened to that kid—you know the one that—”
I could feel my eyes widen. “Excuse—?”
“His name was Clermont.”
In all my wild imaginings I never expected a Clermont. A Dead Clermont. What an ordinary, nerdy sort of name. “Really? He was a soldier—or something?”
“Brother of one.” Mr. Kohl hefted his gunbelt studded with bullets a little higher across his shoulder and started shuffling down the dirt path they optimistically call Main Street. He never looked at me, but I felt the invitation, so I shuffled alongside.
“We live differently than you. We’ve got our own rules. It all goes back to—”
“But he’s—he was—just a kid. How can your rules apply to him? I mean, he didn’t do anything bad, did he?”
“No. Not at all. He was a good kid. But his family belongs to a certain sect—”
“You kill families for their beliefs? Their allegiances?”
When Mr. Kohl peered at me, I swallowed, afraid of the fiery furnace of his gaze.
“For survival. We live by our beliefs. And we die by them, too.” He spat into the dust. “I doubt you’d understand.”
My clenched hands trembled at my side. “Not fair! I’m here because I’m a witness for—”
Mr. Kohl’s snort turned a few heads, but he strolled on, his shoulders squared in cocky self-assurance. “You? You witness nothing. I’ve watched you—and your kind—wander into our world, lost sheep looking for purpose—or excitement—to fill your boring days. You’re more dead than Clermont.”
I nearly pulled out my hair as I tugged at my short, bleached locks. “How can you be so unfeeling—so cruel? Some poor kid dies because of your vicious lifestyle—one you could change—and yet you dare attack me, someone who only wants to bring a bit of light and hope into your—”
Mr. Kohl moved faster than I would have imagined. He gripped me by the throat and slammed me against a stonewall. My eyes searched frantically for a rescuer, someone who’d see this outrage and help. Where was my counselor, now? Probably watching from a distant doorway.
“Listen, child. You know nothing! This is our world. It’s brutal. I didn’t make it so, but I know it well. I don’t lie and pretend it’s something else. We can’t hide here. Death happens—all the time. I live by my conscience. So did Clermont. But we must bow to a greater authority. That cruelty you see here, it lies in you as well. How do you think we feel—you coming and preaching to us when you do not know our truth?”
He let me go and patted me on the arm as if to make amends. “It’s not your fault. You were born into your world. I was born into mine. We both have to make do with what we got.”
I couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down my face. “But I do believe in something. I came here because—” I hesitated, grappling for words. “I believe that there is more to life than cruelty and death.”
The shadow of a smile glistened from Mr. Kohl’s deep black eyes. “So do I. That’s why I offer my services, year after year, and I let your kind preach. Even though you don’t understand. Your Mr. Jansen and those like him, at least they try. Against all odds, they offer a better vision. It probably won’t happen. But, it’s something. It’s all the hope we got.”
By the time I returned home, sitting on the overstuffed couch in our air-conditioned house, I had pretty much gotten over my fright—and my rage. I could barely remember Clermont’s bruised face. It would fade in time. But Mr. Kohl’s eyes—they would stay with me forever.
When mom came in, all cheerful and happy in her shorts and bright T-top, I felt Mr. Kohl’s fingers around my throat.
She plopped an assortment of summer wildflowers into a vase on the table. “So, how was it? Did you have a good time and learn about the wide world?”
Her smile was so genuine; I felt tears flood my eyes. I wanted to explain, but she raised her hand. “Oh, before I forget, we’ve got a luncheon on Thursday, and I want you to bring your music books. It’d be great if you played a little something.”
I choked and covered my face with my hands. “Mom….”
Before I could prepare myself, she threw herself down on the couch next to me. Her arm wrapped around my shoulders, and her voice cracked. “Was it awful, then?”
I pulled away and stared at her much like I must’ve stared at Dead Clermont. “You know?”
Tears glimmered in her eyes. “I’ve known and tried to live with knowing all my life.”
I bolted to my feet. “Why on God’s green Earth did you send me then? The whole thing was hopeless, a total disaster!”
It was almost as if she and Mr. Kohl were related. Her eyes burned, and I was back in that fiery furnace. “You were born into this world, but that hardly excuses you from knowing their world. I could never have explained. You had to see for yourself.”
She was right. No one could’ve explained. And even when you get up close and personal, you still don’t really understand. But now—in an aching sort of way—it’s your world too.