SIXTEEN

Early Christmas morning, Russell was jarred from a troubled sleep by a deputy.

“Come on. You got to see the shrink.”

Russell raised himself from the corner of the cell in which he had sought refuge from the other inmates. His joints ached and his face stung with what he was sure was a burgeoning infectious disease. He touched his cheek lightly, feeling the puffiness, imagining it a pus-filled, bacterial breeding ground.

“Got to warn you,” said the deputy. “Dr. Pilot’s usually a nice guy but he’ pretty pissed having to come in here on Christmas. Better be cooperative or I reckon you’ll never get out.”

Led by the deputy, Russell stumbled down several look-alike hallways, until he was ordered to sit in a blue plastic chair in a cinder-block room painted an institutional green. A slightly built, bald man sat at the lone table, reading through a stack of official looking documents.

“You’re Russell Hicks of Cooleemee, North Carolina?” he asked without looking up.

“Yes.”

“Eighteen years of age?”

“Yes.”

“It appears from the sworn statements about your behavior that you believe you’re on a mission from God. Is that correct?” Dr. Pilot asked, studying Russell for the first time.

“It is as they say.”

“A messiah complex. How appropriate for the season.” Pilot flipped through several more pages of documents, stopping at something interesting. “You claim that you hear directly from God, correct?”

Russell refused to answer.

Dr. Pilot leaned back in his chair, massaging his eyes. “Look, son, I can understand that you might not want to answer my questions, but I’m the only hope you have. If I deem you mentally stable, you might be out of here this afternoon, provided someone posts your bond.”

Silence.

“Do you understand the charges against you? Personally I think they’re petty, but if you won’t talk with me how can I help you?”

Russell touched his facial wound, concerned about the sudden seepage.

“Rough night in the drunk tank, huh? That’s a bad cut. Looks infected. Needs to be checked by a doctor.” Dr. Pilot said, compassion edging its way into his voice. “A young person like you shouldn’t be in there.”

Nothing.

Dr. Pilot persisted. “I’ve read about you in the papers, Russell. I think you’re a good kid. A little naive perhaps, divisive certainly, but well intentioned. I think these charges against you stem from jealousy. Nevertheless, I need evidence by which to evaluate your mental state. The magistrate thinks you’re a danger to yourself and others.”

No response.

The boy’s lack of defensiveness intrigued the psychologist. It was as if the teenager wanted to be punished or sacrificed and therefore did nothing to protect himself. That he didn’t ramble incoherently and had the presence of mind not to self-incriminate, convinced Dr. Pilot that the boy was in possession of his mental faculties. Still, he was an enigma. Being enigmatic, however, did not justify an involuntary commitment. Why had that idiotic magistrate called him out on today of all days? As far as Dr. Pilot was concerned, Hiram Priestly was the one in need of a psychological evaluation.  

“Tell you what, Russell,” he said, his tone gentle, fatherly. “It’s Christmas Day and I want to go home to be with my own teenagers. I’m recommending your release. Think of it as a unilateral act of goodwill.” He rose from his chair. “Merry Christmas, Russell. Go home and be with your family.” When he received no reaction, he shook his head and left.

Russell sat alone in the sterile chamber. He felt exhausted. A white-hot poker of pain seared the base of his skull, making him want to retch. His swollen cheek felt as if it were sliding slowly downward away from the rest of his face like a multiplying, mutinous legion of malevolent microorganisms forming a counter identity—a face of its own.

“Well, isn’t this a happy Christmas for you,” the deputy said, bursting through the door with such abruptness that Russell nearly fell from his chair. “The doc said you’re not a whack job. And, someone paid your bail. You’re free to go on your own recognizance.”

Confused, Russell followed the deputy through the release process, collecting his wallet, belt, shoelaces, and jacket. He signed the receipt of his property at 6:05 a.m., after which he found himself alone on the steps of the Wilkins County Jail.

The morning was overcast, the sky a panorama of brooding, cumulonimbus clouds that hung discouraged above the holiday-stilled town. Russell put on his belt, stuffed his wallet into his back pocket, and slipped into his jacket. He wasn’t sure what to do. He had nowhere to go. His friends had deserted him. There were no crowds begging him to speak. There was not a person to be seen anywhere. For the first time in months Russell Hicks was entirely alone and without direction.

He moved aimlessly south on Greene Street toward the railroad tracks. He had never experienced such silence. It was as if the entire life force of Wilkins had vanished, stolen away in the night by an iniquitous, death-crazed evil that gnawed even now at his own soul. The living inspiration that had filled his heart for as long as could remember was escaping, leaking out through pinpricks of doubt, deflating his hope, his faith, his sense of who he was.

Russell saw the two speeding cars as he attempted to cross the street at the corner of Greene and Westminster Streets. The first one, a red Escort nearly struck him, forcing him to dive backward to the curb. The second vehicle, a blue Toyota, screeched to a stop inches from his prone body. The occupants exited quickly and rough hands jerked Russell up, slamming him backward onto the hood of the car. They were Demons—three of them. Russell recognized them as the ones who continually harassed him when he spoke.

“Well, well, well, look who we have here,” said one of them, the leader, the largest, with a brutal crew cut and chipped teeth. “Russell Hicks. The holy boy.” He seethed hatred, longed to break bones, to inflict pain. “We lost four of our best players because of you. We lost the championship because of you and your religious crap.”

The two Demons, who pinned Russell’s arms to the car’s hood, grinned maliciously. One of them, a defensive tackle, said, “My girlfriend broke up with me on account of you telling her that sex is wrong. This is for what I’m missing.” Freeing one hand from Russell’s arm, he slammed his fist down on Russell’s swollen cheek, bursting the pocket of inflamed tissue in a shower of blood that sprayed across the car’s windshield.

“Wait for me,” someone shouted from a distance. Russell couldn’t lift his head or focus his vision, but he recognized the voice. “I want a shot at him, too.”

Kyle Affas approached, accompanied by three gothic-clad youths.

“Stand him up,” Kyle ordered.

Russell would not have been able to stand had the Demons not supported him. His head drooped forward, the left side of his face a bloody massacre of torn flesh.

“Hi, Russell. Merry Christmas,” Kyle said, his voice singsong, maniacal. “Guess who bailed you out? Me. Isn’t that ironic?” He slapped Russell hard across the mouth. “Got anything wise to say to me now? Any parables? Because if you have something to say that could save your life, you’d better say it now.”

Russell blinked at Kyle, bewildered, not comprehending his detestation. “Make him hurt,” Kyle told the Demons.

Crewcut struck Russell with a forearm shiver beneath the jaw that snapped his teeth together, slicing off the tip of his tongue. Warm, thick blood filled Russell’s mouth, flowing down the front of his jacket and the back of his throat simultaneously.

The next hit, a blow to his right temple, dropped him into a deep, impenetrable abyss from which he could not emerge.

He swooned in the void for what seemed an eternity, until at last a grayish light appeared. He moved toward the glimmer of consciousness, praying that he would surface into the light of wakefulness to discover that all that happened was only a nightmare.

The first image he observed when he partially opened his swollen eyes was a heavy wooden cross. But it was wrong. Something was wrong. It was upside down. Or was he upside down? He tried to sit up, but could not. A rope bit into his neck, preventing him from raising his body. His hands too were bound. Where was he? A warehouse of some sort. What was that smell? Tobacco. He must be in a tobacco warehouse on the east edge of town. Why the cross? He panicked at an image that invaded his mind. Crucifixion? No. The cross was too small and it was upside down. He fought against his restraints but every movement sent glassy shards of pain through his body.

“The victim awakes.” One of the gothic youths stood over Russell. His Mohawk hair was a rainbow of colors, a metallic skull and crossbones necklace hung midway down his black T-shirt. “Welcome to our little temple of death. We call it the Place of the Skull.”

The two other gothic youths, who were present in the street with Kyle, joined their friend in a circle around Russell. The three stared without speaking further.

A door opened in the distance, a brief ray of light, then darkness again. The only illumination in the warehouse emanated from a circle of candles in the center of the room. Footsteps drew closer, until Kyle Affas appeared. He knelt down at Russell’s head.

“Ready to follow through with your words, Russell?” Kyle studied the bloodied, puckered flesh of his victim’s face for some time before speaking again. “Oh, so you’re not going to talk with me. Stoic and silent to the end, huh? The lamb to the slaughter.”

He motioned to the other boys, who cut the prisoner free of his bonds. Russell sat up and massaged his wrists and neck.

“Your theatrics around Wilkins have had a profound affect on me, Russell. Did you know that? I’m man enough to admit it.” Kyle stood and walked in circles around Russell as he spoke. “Sure, you ruined my ministry at the school, making me look like a self-centered ass. And, yes you became a hundred, maybe a thousand times more popular than me because people saw you as more spiritual. But I did learn something from you. Shocked? Thought I wasn’t listening?” Kyle lunged suddenly, grabbing Russell by the hair. “I learned that I was a coward. Surprised to hear that, Russell?” Kyle touched Russell’s earlobe with his lips. “But not anymore,” he whispered. “Thanks to you, I’ve been transformed.”

Kyle straightened and ordered the others to lift Russell to his feet. Too weak to resist, Russell complied with every pull on his body.

“We have something in common, Russell. Did you know that? We’re both on a mission from God. At first I didn’t want to acknowledge my part, because I was afraid. Afraid to obey, you might say. But you just wouldn’t let up. You kept pushing, until suddenly one night it hit me. The whole sovereign plan struck me in a moment of inspiration. For you to fulfill your death wish, you needed someone brave enough to provide that death. And that someone, was me.”

Again Kyle nodded to his co-conspirators. One of them disappeared into the shadows and reappeared with a lengthy coil of rope. Immediately Russell saw the tight noose tied at one end.

Kyle took the rope and threw it up over a water pipe above Russell’s head. He tugged on the line, ensuring that it would support the weight of a body. Satisfied, he said, “You see, I knew that they would release you from jail. You’re not crazy and the assault charges are too minor for any lengthy incarceration. But you have to die, don’t you? Isn’t that your destiny? If you lived after today, you wouldn’t know what to do with the rest of your life, would you? So, I’m here to fulfill my destiny as well. To help you finish what you came to Wilkins to do.”

Kyle secured the loose end of the rope to an iron beam, then slipped the noose over Russell’s head, tightening it around his neck. “Get a chair.”

One of the gothic youths brought a chair, and the other two lifted Russell into a standing position. Kyle tightened the length of rope so that Russell could not move.

“Of course this will be viewed as a suicide,” Kyle continued. “The poor, delusional, Russell Hicks, consumed with his messiah complex, couldn’t stand the humiliation of being jailed as a common criminal so he kills himself in a lowly warehouse at,” Kyle looked at his watch,” 9:00 o’clock on Christmas morning. How tragic. He saved a lot of other people but he couldn’t save himself.”

Kyle kicked away the chair and Russell Hicks of Cooleemee, North Carolina plunged earthward, his journey ended.

The gothic youths stood and watched while Russell suffocated, marveling at death up close. At noon, a burst of wind penetrated the warehouse, extinguishing all the candles, plunging the room into utter darkness.

“What if this kid really was from God?” one of the boys asked. The now terrified youths fled.

By one o’clock that afternoon, a small party of troubled girls began searching for Russell. Leslie Burbee had called Peter, wanting to invite Russell and the gang for Christmas dinner at her house. When Peter tearfully related the events of the previous twelve hours, Leslie called the jail and learned that Russell had been released at six that morning. She contacted everyone she knew, but no one had seen him. Debbie Webster agreed to form a search party and meet at the Piggly-Wiggly. At three o’clock, acting on information given by a black youth who had seen three boys running from a deserted warehouse, the girls discovered the suspended body.

Two deputies cut the lifeless form from the rusty water pipe and an ambulance transported it to Wilkins Hospital, where the on-duty doctor pronounced Russell Hicks dead at 4:40 p.m.  

Joseph Armatha, the father of one of the girls who had discovered the body, wanted to do something to help, so he offered to take care of the necessary burial arrangements. The following day, with the approval of Russell’s mother, he purchased a plot in the town’s cemetery. After a brief, sparsely attended service at the grave site, Russell Hicks was laid to rest.    

Long after everyone else had left, Leslie, Debbie, and a few other girls stood crying, their tears making muddy pools in the freshly turned earth.