Bruce Westburn had spent last night on Officer Leslie’s pull-out couch, not sleeping, but reading sheet music to stop the nightmares. When he pretended to wake up, Officer Leslie asked who else in Pleasantville he could stay with.
“Pastor Al,” Bruce said.
“He’s a good man,” Officer Leslie said, nodding. “He’ll know what to do. Only problem I can see is it’s Sunday morning, kiddo.”
After Bruce packed his suitcase again, Officer Leslie gave him a bag of crullers and a quart of 2% milk. They drove past the stores and schools on Main Street. So far Bruce hated his freshman year, especially lunch period when he would get teased for being small, shy, and a stutterer of the letter “m.” But he had a new plan. He’d mastered every singing drill from the library books. He’d practiced his favorite ballads. He felt ready for the Pleasantville Community Church choir auditions next week. Pastor Al can help me, Bruce thought. He’s not just the choir director, he’s an awesome public speaker. If I can stay with him for a few days, I’ll learn so much.
Bruce had never been to the Pleasantville Highlands. The streets weren’t rectangular, and there was no through-traffic, but every property had a long driveway going over a creek of rocks and flowing water. On this sunny morning, men in baseball caps were mowing their big lawns, and women in yoga pants were powerwalking in pairs.
From a cream brick mansion with a white birch tree in front, a woman called down, whooping, “Jeez, it’s been too long, Leslie!” The woman had on a soft pink sleeveless blouse and white pants, with a little girl in tights and pigtails grabbing her leg from behind. “Come on up here!”
Officer Leslie hollered back, “How ya doing?” She then told Bruce, “You let me do the talking. If I can get them to take you in, I’ll find your mom. I promise.”
Bruce was done talking. He’d already been spoken to by his aunt, a homeroom teacher, even a child psychologist, but none of them were willing to talk about his mom leaving for ice cream last night and not returning.
As Officer Leslie and the woman did the usual chitchat, the little girl played in her jungle gym, and Bruce sat beside the raised firepit. A minute later, Vicky came outside in a white V-neck cami, cut-off blue jean shorts, and thong sandals. When bored in church, Bruce had decided, after much thought, that she was both the coolest and hottest girl in town.
And then, unabashedly, Bruce began eavesdropping. He didn’t hear Officer Leslie, but he could hear Vicky. At first, he loved her high-pitched laugh, making everyone smile. But after going on and on, Bruce began to resent her cackling, cackling, cackling, like a hyena.
Instantly something towering from behind cast a shadow over Bruce.
Pastor Al was six-foot-six and a former basketball star. He was sweating in a black button up, blue jeans, and gray gym shoes. He was handsome, but with a shave and buzzcut for his brown hair long overdue, his head looked like an oversized coconut.
Bruce sprang up. After putting down a canoe, Pastor Al gave him a subtle fist bump, like they were part of a special club.
“Hey there!” Officer Leslie said.
“How’s it going, hon?” Pastor Al replied with a confident baritone. He lumbered over and pulled Officer Leslie in for a big hug. Bruce noticed his commanding presence, even around a police officer.
“I’m not sure you heard,” Officer Leslie said, “but Bruce here needs some help, and you were the first person we thought of.”
“Of course,” Pastor Al said. “That’s what I’m here for.”
Officer Leslie gave Bruce a slight push in the back and whispered, “Now’s your chance to talk to Vicky, all right?”
Bruce got stuck while saying “meet,” and then panicked as he thought there was no other word to replace it. When Vicky pulled out her phone, Bruce returned to his chair.
“I’m looking into the boy’s father,” Officer Leslie said. “His name is Ray, different last name. Big fella. Hasn’t been in town for a long time. But last night, Ms. Thompkins thinks she saw his mom in the back of a brown van at the gas station on 53rd. Guess who used to have a brown van?”
My father did, Bruce told himself. I know he did this. He’s the only person in Pleasantville who would hurt Mom.
“Oh no,” Pastor Al said. “Has anyone found him?”
“Not yet, but I will,” Officer Leslie replied.
“I’ll pray that you do. Such a cruel man from what I remember.”
“That’s why I’m here, Al. I can’t go find anybody if I have to keep watching over the boy. So I figured, because his father wasn’t a churchgoing man, he won’t suspect if the boy stays with you.”
“Sure,” Pastor Al said immediately, as if he’d suspected this request all along. “Whatever you need.”
“Honey,” Pastor Al’s wife interrupted, “we have to go now. That poor boy can come too. Service is starting soon.”
“Oh, it’s only a five-minute drive,” Pastor Al said. “I’ll catch up with you guys once I speak to him one-on-one.”
“Don’t be late this time, Daddy,” the little girl begged.
“No, please do,” Vicky said, “that way we can actually sing something fun for once.”
The whole family cackled.
After a long goodbye to Officer Leslie, the wife, little girl, and Vicky drove away in a luxury SUV.
Officer Leslie knelt down beside Bruce. “Kiddo,” she said. “I gotta get to work, but if you get scared about anything, you find a phone and call me that instant, all right?”
“Okay,” Bruce said.
Officer Leslie gave him a hug. But as she left, she had that same pitiful smile as the aunt, teacher, and psychologist.
A breeze came. Birds chirped from a willow tree. “Son,” Pastor Al said, “you ready to see where you’ll be staying?”
“Yeah,” Bruce said.
Pastor Al picked up Bruce’s suitcase and held the front door open for him. Bruce thought he smelled like fish.
The living room was enormous. It had a shiny black grand piano. It had a fireplace mantle with gymnastic medals and cheerleading trophies, an old grandfather clock, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf with Christian fiction and Bible studies, and dozens of photos of the family at charity events, all with Vicky smiling beautifully. There was no TV. What do they do for fun? Bruce wondered. Me and Mom always have on a musical.
“You need anything?” Pastor Al said.
“No,” Bruce replied.
“Want to talk about something?”
“Okay.” Pastor Al scratched his forehead. “How about a soda and some of my wife’s hotdish? It’s got lots of cheese, ya know?”
“Good. But before we do that, I’m going to need you to take off your shoes, please.”
Bruce followed instructions before sitting on the couch. Pastor Al said a prayer for the boy. Once they started eating, a golden retriever came begging and got a few bites from Pastor Al, then Bruce too.
“You like it?” Pastor Al said.
“Us too. We always fight for the leftovers.”
After cleaning his plate, Bruce’s eyes and hands went up. “Can I have more, please?”
“Son, you can have as much you like.”
Why’s he being so nice to me? Bruce thought. I never talk in church. I guess it’s cause he feels bad about Mom.
Bruce frowned and Pastor Al smiled.
“Don’t give up on finding your mom,” Pastor Al said. “Let me tell you, a tough kid like you, after all you’ve been through, the last thing you ought to do is quit.”
“You think Officer Leslie will find her?”
“Oh, for sure. Everyone loves your mom. She’s an honest, pretty woman who never missed a single choir practice, ya know? If someone knows something, they’ll tell Officer Leslie. And you can bet I’ll do everything in my power to help too.”
Bruce nodded. Now I see why everyone trusts Pastor Al.
“I think my father did it,” Bruce said.
“Took my mom.”
“Why do you say that?”
“She was always scared he’d come back.”
“Okay. Any other reason?”
“Only someone real strong like him could’ve done it.”
“Cause our front door got ripped off like a toy or something. It’s not even on the hinge anymore.”
“Listen, it sounds to me too like your father did it.” Pastor Al leaned closer. “But you sure it couldn’t have been someone else?
“Yeah,” Bruce said unwaveringly. He’d overheard Officer Leslie say there were no other suspects, no alternative theories, just his father. “He did it.”
“Well, how’s that make you feel?”
“I don’t know. Angry.”
“Have you ever met him?”
“What do you want to happen to him?”
“After what he did, he’s got to pay.”
“That would be fitting. Isaiah 13:11 says, ‘I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.’”
Bruce looked down, hung his head low. Pastor Al pulled his face up, gently.
“I am so, so sorry,” Pastor Al said. “If you ever need to talk more about this, no matter what it’s about, I’m there for you, son.”
“No, no. I mean it. In fact, I wish I could’ve been there sooner for ya. I was on my yacht last night until just now.”
“To catch bass?” Bruce said, feeling proud of himself for paying attention in church.
“That’s right. Would you believe I’ve been doing it for twenty-seven years?” Pastor Al closed his eyes and daydreamed. “It’s the only thing I ever do that’s just for me. Nothing but my yacht and the lake. Being alone like that helps clear the soul, ya know? You ever go fishing?”
“No, I don’t go in dark water. I get scared if I can’t see my feet.”
“Cause of something bad that happened to m-m-m-me.”
Bruce paused for a moment.
“You don’t have to tell me, son.”
“No, I want to.” Bruce took a deep breath. “I almost drowned. It happened when I was little, maybe six or seven, at Lake Michigan. Mom was reading on the beach and I was playing in the water. I couldn’t swim that good but it was easy, so I went farther out. When the water was at my neck, I turned around to head back, but a big wave hit me. If that had happened earlier, I would’ve just kicked my feet around until I felt the bottom. But I was too deep. I couldn’t see anything except the dark waves. I tried screaming for Mom, but every time I opened my mouth, I swallowed water. I thought I was gonna die. But eventually Mom got me.
“I try not to think about it much now. But I still do. In pools, I don’t go in the deep end, but Mom makes sure she can always see me.
“She said it was the worst thing that ever happened to me and her. Sometimes she’d have nightmares. I’d hear her screaming and I’d rush into her room and tell her it was okay. But it didn’t help. Cause she just kept shaking and telling me to go back to bed. Mom never forgot.”
“Wow, I didn’t mean to bring you down even more, son,” Pastor Al said while shaking his head.
“It’s okay. It’s not your fault.”
Pastor Al nodded and looked around. Then he rested his heavy hand on Bruce’s shoulder and said, “Say, I got an idea. C’mon.”
Pastor Al led him into a basement storage room. He grabbed a baseball glove laying on a bucket.
“I bought this before my wife got pregnant,” Pastor Al said. “I was hoping for a boy, both times. But now it’s just collecting dust. Want to see if it fits you?”
Bruce didn’t take the glove.
“Or maybe there’s another sport you like?” Pastor Al said.
“Okay, you’re not a fan. That’s fine. I can learn whatever hobby you’re into and then embarrass myself doing that. It’s what my girls enjoy the most about me, anyway.”
“That reminds me,” Pastor Al said, “Leslie said you’re thinking about trying out for choir. That true?”
“Well, how about you show me what you got upstairs?”
“Yes! I mean, yes, please.”
“Good. Let me get the air mattress and stuff for ya first. It’ll only take a minute.”
Pastor Al gave Bruce a wink and went into another room.
He really likes me, Bruce thought. He’s obviously nice, but this is so awesome. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll stay friends with him after Mom returns.
While waiting Bruce browsed the industrial shelves storing old life jackets, flares, fire extinguishers, and first aid kits. Then he noticed something shiny, something that looked like it didn’t belong. He picked it up. It was a sterling silver necklace of a crescent moon singing.
It’s identical to Mom’s, he thought. But it can’t be. She never took it off.
Whenever Bruce stuttered, she would sing out of the corner of her mouth and gyrate the necklace back and forth, like it was the one singing. Sometimes it helped.
Bruce flipped the necklace over.
Oh god, no! It’s got my initials! And Pastor Al has it! What do I do?
“I’m all set,” Pastor Al announced.
“Great,” Bruce replied, as casually as he could, while sliding the necklace into his pocket.
“Ready for a trial run?” Pastor Al said.
Pastor Al threw the air mattress onto his wide shoulder and turned off the lights. Bruce’s bare feet felt cold on the stone floor. On his walk upstairs, he shivered at every heavy footstep behind him.
In the living room, Bruce couldn’t see anyone through the window. He turned around and found Pastor Al looking down at him.
“Well, we don’t have all day, ya know?”
Pastor Al’s cheeks looked red, like he’d been sunburned. He sounded strange too. In church, he had preached with a booming monotone. But now his voice was deeper, more guttural, raw.
Pastor Al pointed at the piano bench. Bruce sat.
“Your mom could really belt one out, which you know, of course, considering she was in the choir,” Pastor Al said, and Bruce noticed he was speaking in past tense. “But over the years, I’d like to think I helped her with the mental side. You know what that means?”
Bruce shook his head.
“See,” Pastor Al said, “the most important thing to do during an audition, or life in general, is to be confident. It’s not the physical stuff that matters. You can have all the talent and know every song in the world, but if you don’t believe in yourself, your environment will crush you.”
Pastor Al sat on the bench. “For instance,” he said, “what if you get so nervous you lose your voice and it feels like you’re running out of air? Then what, hmm?”
Bruce felt Pastor Al’s breaths on his forearm.
Pastor Al scooted closer. “Sing as loudly as you can.”
Bruce started singing.
Pastor Al covered Bruce’s sternum with his right hand, planted his other hand on Bruce’s spine, and squeezed the two together.
“Don’t stop,” Pastor Al said. He then squeezed harder, even lifting Bruce’s torso up. “You need to stop slouching. It restricts your windpipe.”
Bruce’s eyes began to well up.
“Are you crying?”
While running out of breath, Bruce shook his head. A tear fell.
“You are crying,” Pastor Al said, while finally letting go.
Bruce wiped his eyes. “No, I’m not.”
“Well, I sure hope you aren’t. Otherwise, I don’t think you have what it takes to be on my team, son.”
The golden retriever approached curiously and rested its head on Bruce’s lap, begging, like before.
“No!” Pastor Al shouted. He grabbed the dog by the scruff of the neck, dragged it into the garage, and slammed the door.
Meanwhile Bruce had been rushing towards the front door. In a flash Pastor Al was there and seized Bruce’s right wrist, clutching his mom’s necklace.
“What have you got there?” Pastor Al demanded.
Bruce opened his hand.
Pastor Al glanced down and quickly answered, “Oh, I found that at the gas station last night.”
“It’s m-m-my m-m—”
“Your mom’s?” Pastor Al said. “You sure?”
“Yes,” Bruce said.
Pastor Al sneered. “It’s a different one.”
“No. She never took it off.”
Bruce tried turning the necklace over to show him the initials, but Pastor Al snatched it out of his hand.
“Okay, I’ll have to look at this later,” Pastor Al said with an upbeat voice. “But right, we need to get going now.” He clapped twice. “We’re already late.”
“Officer Leslie said someone saw M-M-M . . . her at the gas station last night.”
“Ope! I must have misspoke.” Pastor Al shook his head. “Not about me being at the gas station, that’s true, but about where I found it. See, I stopped at a sports bar for something to eat and that’s where I saw the necklace. I thought it looked pretty, so I brought it back home for my daughter, ya know?”
“You said gas station,” Bruce cried. “Gas station.”
“No, I didn’t.” Pastor Al’s entire chest expanded with a heavy breath. “Besides, think about it, son. If that was really your mom’s necklace, how did I get it?”
There was no doubt in Bruce’s mind anymore. And Pastor Al knew it too. He looked tense, tightly wound, angrier than hell, with his teeth gritting so hard his jaw jerked. Bruce stepped back but he bumped into the grandfather clock, causing the glass door to rattle. Pastor Al advanced forward. Bruce knew he wasn’t fast enough to run or strong enough to fight. There was only one thing he could do.
“Why?” he said weakly. “Why did you—”
“Shut it! Just shut your damn mouth! You got me all frazzled and now I can’t think straight!”
“I’ll tell Officer Leslie,” Bruce said, but immediately questioned whether he had the courage.
Then Bruce watched in horror as Pastor Al placed the necklace in the palm of his hand, strolled to the bathroom, and flushed it in the toilet. He came out grinning, with his hand empty.
Bruce tried begging. He tried promising to never tell anyone if he was let go, but an abrupt stutter overpowered him, choked the words in his throat, like a dog running for its life until the leash became taut. Bruce stopped trying.
“Oh, no,” Pastor Al said with a smile. “I can’t remember what the necklace looks like anymore. Can you explain it to me?”
Suddenly the doorbell rang.
Pastor Al got in Bruce’s face. “Get your ass upstairs,” he commanded. “Now!”
Bruce ran up the stairs. He rushed into the bathroom and shut the door, which didn’t have a lock. Through the walls, he heard Pastor Al warmly greeting his parishioners, asking why he was late.
Bruce told himself, Get out of here now. However you can.
Another stairway? None except the one to him. Call Officer Leslie? No phone was in sight. Use a weapon? Not with my trembling hands. Go out a window? No way I can jump down two stories and run away. A scream for help? Nothing I can say will make anyone downstairs believe me.
The front door creaked open. Out of options, Bruce ran into a bedroom and hid in a wicker chest at the foot of the bed. The front door shut loudly. Bruce curled into a ball and tried his best to stop from weeping, but he couldn’t. He was losing it.
Bruce peaked through a gap into the hallway, but nothing came. He listened but heard nothing, except his own breathing and heartbeat. He’s going to find me. He’ll find me and kill me.
“Brucey? Oh Brucey, where are you?” sang a deep voice.
In shock Bruce bumped his head into the lid of the chest. Don’t make another sound. Don’t breathe, don’t even blink.
For minutes there was only silence.
Eventually Pastor Al entered the master bedroom with his hands in his pockets, looking oddly content. Instead of opening the chest, or checking behind the door or under the bed, he stood in the center of the room.
“I know you were upset earlier, as was I,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is, this is all a misunderstanding. I was caught by surprise when, all of sudden, you’re in my house and Leslie is telling me your sweet mother has been kidnapped by your awful father. I got so worried that I mixed up one little detail. That’s all. But I am telling you, right now, I found that necklace outside the sports bar.”
Pastor Al glanced at himself in a mirror on the wall.
“So you might think you can tell someone about this, but you really shouldn’t. Ya know why?” Pastor Al sounded so calm, so confident, like he was in the middle of a sermon. “Because the necklace is gone. You clearly have been traumatized. And I’m the pastor of Pleasantville Community Church, who was asked to help you by a police officer. No one will ever believe you.”
Pastor Al tightened a white clergy collar around his neck.
“Besides, son, if you did”—he glared at the chest through the mirror—“I’ll always know where you are.”
Bruce shut his eyes. Not to stop from crying or seeing what would happen next, but to think of his mom.
Footsteps went down the stairs. The front door opened, then closed. An engine started, and a car drove away.
Before now all Bruce had wished for was to be stutter-free, to sing on the team, to make friends and talk to girls in school. He had wanted to become like Pastor Al, the gifted public speaker and choir director. Bruce had even planned and practiced how to tell off his father, after being caught red-handed, for abandoning him and committing such a horrible crime. But now Bruce would have to forget his family. Now he would have to carry this new secret alone. Now he would have to stay silent forever, just like his mom, buried in water so dark and deep no one would ever find her.
Jeffrey Grimyser is a father, husband, attorney, and originally a “Sconnie” who now lives in rival Chicago. His work has appeared in Bright Flash Literary Review, Free Radicals Magazine, and CommuterLit.