It was a small town,” I say hesitantly, as everything comes rushing back, like a tidal wave.
“It was a small town, filled with small minded people with small minded dreams. No, a small country with, well, small minded people. It had its own rules- Own way of doing things. A person’s worth was measured by the amount of Sunday’s spent sitting on a pew… 1, 2, 29, 100, I lose count. Going to church was the unofficial official pastime. But not like football. No, that is- was completely different…” I ramble on, looking out the window then down to my fingers. I feel antsy, being here. Not just in this room, but here in this place. I have not been here in this area in about fifteen years. Not since, well, since everything. The reason I left is the reason I’m back.
“Okay, thanks for that, but that isn’t really what we need. We were told that you are the person we needed to see about the event in question. We were also lead to believe that you were present for it, Ms. Edwards.” Lieutenant Rodriguez says looking up from the file in front of him. I look back to him, and nod. “Okay, so since the sheriff got reelected, Sheriff Nolan wants all cold cases reopened and started fresh. And when we opened the case of Danielle McDuffy, your name was all over it. Why?”
I let out a small laugh. Why? They always want to know why. Or at least they think they want to know. “Well, Lieutenant that is a long story and it will take a pretty big chunk of time to tell.”
Lieutenant Rodriguez pulls out a tape recorder. “You’re in luck. Time is all I have,” he says pressing a button. “This is Lieutenant Rodriguez, Case number 778-B. And I’m with Estella Edwards. Okay Ms. Edwards. Start.” He says then points his pen at me.
“Um, well, I guess you could say her disappearance was caused by events- wait let me back up. This all happened back before the Twin Towers’ collapsed, and I was called Essie. Which I never really understood, but it stuck. Eden at the time still only had one store and one red light, and the cops’ only job was to neglect their job by over writing speeding tickets to the point where they owed the state money rather than cracking down on the ever growing drug problem. Personally I believe that they were in on the drugs, but that’s beside the point.
“I had gone to a private school my whole life. Rode with my dad two hours into the city every day. That was until he got laid off and then it was public school for me; which was not so bad since I knew most people from church. That’s actually where I met Dani for the first time. My parents, me and my brother, we sat exactly in the middle. Never changed pews, always the same one. But there was a group of kids my age who sat not necessarily in the front but not exactly in the middle either. Which if you ask any generation from Eden, they will all say that there was a group like that too when they were that age.” I look up at Lieutenant Rodriguez. Evan’s eyes stare back at me, but quickly disappear. “Nothing ever changes in this town. Nothing.”
“But anyway, yeah, that was them. Dani, Mark Peters, Stefanie and Alex Roberts, oh and my cousin Faye Edwards. She was named after our great- great grandmother. Anyways, when I started my junior year, my only year of school there, I was a nobody. Just another Edwards to walk the halls of Eden High. I was tolerated but not really noticed, you know? Well, my first year there was the year that Lauren Sherman was killed. I had a class with her, it was just gym but I remember her always laughing and smiling. She was a very sarcastic person. But before she died, every single person referred to her only as The Whore of Eden, or some variation. I even remember one day in gym Mary Jane Clark, walked in out of nowhere and slapped Lauren. She said ‘Stay away from Johnny you slut.’ Lauren just held her cheek then said ‘Well, if you would use that thing between your legs instead of your hypocritical mouth, he wouldn’t have to come running to me.’ Mary Jane’s eyes grew as big as her head then she left. But after she left I swear I heard Lauren mumble ‘I didn’t want to- I said no. I didn’t want to.’ She died three days later. Drove her car into a pine. We were told that she must have seen an animal and swerved but looking back, I do not think it was an accident. But then again I wasn’t very close to her. After she died, though, all anyone could talk about was how sweet she was, and how she was such a good person, gone too soon. At her funeral, I got there late, and instead of making my way to the middle with my family, I stood at the back. Whether it was fate or destiny I don’t know but, since Lauren’s family was sitting in the front of the church, I stood next to my cousin and her friends. We did not speak but I heard them whispering saying that Lauren, the whore, deserved it. That she deserved to burn in Hell. For two weeks after her funeral, everyone drove the speed limit, slowed down on curves, and waited extra-long at the train tracks. But as soon as that third week started, it was like Lauren Sherman had never existed. The next and last time anyone would talk about her would be a couple of months later when her old friends and classmates graduated. And even then it was just a laminated piece of paper that said ‘In Memorial of Lauren Edith Sherman’ sat in an empty chair. She is just a cross on the side of some old road now.
“I guess I should say how the school works. There is always a group that ‘leads’ each race. And I know that sounds horrible, but that is how it works. Even though our school has been integrated since our parents were in grade school, the sentiment that the races should never mingle is still there. ‘You can talk and be nice, but that’s it. No more.’ And the teachers there are crap. It is truly amazing that I even made it through college. The only thing they teach you is gossip. Which is just lies we tell in order to get our five seconds of fame until the next lie is thought up. So Dani, the Roberts twins, Faye and Mark were the white group.” I say shaking my head. It all sounds so childish out loud.
“And anyway after Lauren’s untimely death, I was just in The Group. I honestly I do not know how or why. It was just one those things that was not there when you went to sleep but when you woke up it was there. I think that having Faye helped. Or maybe it was the Edwards name. We used to make up Eden, the Edwards did. We created Eden in the new state of Georgia as its first settlers in the early eighteen hundreds or so. Maybe it was the name that made me more appealing. Even though me getting into The Group was easy, I still had to prove myself. I- I uh had to steal a solid gold elephant from Mr. Fitzgerald. It was his late wife’s and since his delinquent grandson was living with him it was easy for me to not be caught. His grandson, Dylan, was horrible. One time I was waiting in the office for my absence slip after a stomach flu caused by one too many late night shots, and Dylan walked in and his penis fell out of his unzipped pants. His penis! Right there in the office. He went to a correctional school after that. He is probably in jail now…
“Anyway, I stole the elephant; it was a heavy bitch, by the way- And just like that,” I say and snap my fingers. “I was in.” Dani’s laughter tinkles in my ears, making them ring with a longing I have not felt in years.
“The first party I went to as an official member was in The Grove. All the parties in Eden were in The Grove. I remember traipsing through the pines, behind Faye. I was like a little kid who was seeing snow for the first time. The trees opened up to reveal this beautiful almost perfect circle filled with people. But you could see the invisible line. This line got smaller with each generation. We were the first to not only talk at school but to also all party at the same time and place. Though we still hung around our own. As me and Faye drank and danced, and then drank again, I felt free. More free than I had ever felt before… Eventually though Dani joined us. She had never personally spoken to me at this point. She spoke through proxy. Looking back, I think she may have felt like she was too good to slim with the general population of Eden… But then again that was not the case. She had no qualms about ‘slumming it.’
“She waved for the four of us to follow her. We all walked in a line across the field to the other side. Back in the cover of the pines, we walked until we reached the creek. Wordlessly, Dani began to strip until she was only in her bra and panties. A scandalous act for a young lady but it is the lowest of our many, many sins. She jumped into the water then we all followed suit. I was laying on my back floating, staring drunkenly up at the stars when I felt a tap on my shoulder. ‘How do you like it so far? Us, I mean’ Dani said. ‘You guys are great… I really. Y’all are nice,’ I said stumbling over my words. Dani laughed. But her laugh was more of a tinkle than a laugh. ‘That’s good to hear. I really like you, Essie. And you know, I’m going to need a replacement for next year. I think you would do good.’ I do not know why she thought me. Maybe it was the fact that I had gone to the academy. Maybe it was because I was quiet. I don’t know- I did not know, so I just nodded at her. She began to swim off but stopped. ‘Oh, on Monday, sit by me in Spanish.’ ‘What about Claire?’ Dani just laughed again. ‘Claire? Oh, my mother told me that since Claire is in trouble she is moving to Lynchmen with her aunt and uncle… so her seat is yours.’ ‘Trouble? Oh. Oh…’ Dani nodded then swam off.
“After that night, I never made another alone appearance. I always had one of The Group with me. It did not matter where I went, either. Football games, church, parties, the mall in the city. I was never alone, which was nice. Well, it was but at the same time not, you know? It was-” The recorder beeps.
“Shit,” Lieutenant Rodriguez curses under his breath. “The battery is dying. Do you mind quitting early today and just picking this up tomorrow?”
I give him a smile. “No, that is perfectly alright. These things are unavoidable,” I say with a quick wave of my hand.
“Thanks for being so understanding. You can go, Ms. Edwards.” I grab my purse from under the metal table and walk out of the room. Stepping out into the fresh air is relaxing and unnerving. Though I’m glad to be out of that room, I’m paranoid that they will know that I’m talking. Uttering words meant to be taken to the grave. But I’m being ridiculous. I know that I’m not even in Eden. I’m two towns over, where the county’s sheriff office is. I get into my car, letting the faint smell of cigarette smoke waft over me as I pull down the visor then peel out of the parking lot, headed in the direction of my hotel.
The sun forces its way through the small crack between the curtains, waking me up. I slept like shit, I tossed and turned and rolled. In my dreams I kept falling and running then falling again. A warning to keep my mouth shut? Or just a coincidence? But then again there is no such thing as coincidence, is there? I roll out of the bed. I stand in the en-suite, brushing my teeth, staring at my face. I want to run. To just say that I wasn’t there. That everything I know is a lie, but I can’t.
Life can be a cruel mistress. One of them should be here, instead of me, in my place. One of them should be paying for their sins—our sins.
“Remember what they took. Speak up for once, Estella. Speak up.” I tell my reflection. I look brave on the outside. Cool, calm, and collected. But on the inside I’m putty. When I left I never thought that I would come back. I made sure to leave with nothing tying me here. Well, one thing but only I know that. But maybe this is my chance to right all of the wrongs… It has to be; I owe all of them this. They deserve freedom. And I deserve to be cleansed.
Regardless, you will always be the result of drunkards mixing with trashy carpetbaggers. I blink my eyes, clearing away the haunting words from my thoughts. I lift my chin high and walk to my suit case.
I dress in my black slacks and a sleeveless white blouse. I pull my hair into a smart looking bun as I walk back into the sheriff’s office. “I’m here to see Lieutenant Rodriguez.” I tell the aging receptionist. She stares at me. Her eyes flicker over me. I do not belong here, so to her I am not a human. To her I am just merely another nameless sinner. “My name is Estella. Estella Edwards.”
“Oh. Right. Ms. Edwards. Go on back to Interrogation Room six. Third door on the left,” she says buzzing the door open. I give her a small smile and walk back. I easily find the room; this building isn’t that big.
Instead of sitting I walk over to the window. A lone pine tree stands next to it. Of course its pine. Pine is the fuel of this part of the world. Three out of five people who work in this area have jobs that are connected to these trees in one way or another. Without them we are nothing. They are our landscape, our shade, our paper and jobs, what our houses are made of inside and out, our childhoods are built upon the crunch of pine straw and pine cones. Our blood doesn’t bleed red but the sticky, amber brown of pine sap. It is an undeniable fact that pine trees make our world turn round. I shake my head at the ridiculousness of this. Who creates an empire solely based on one thing?
“Good to see you, Ms. Edwards,” Lieutenant Rodriguez says as I turn around to face him. “Are you ready to continue?”
“Good to see you too. Yes, I’m ready. Ready as ever,” I say walking over to the metal table and taking a seat. Lieutenant Rodriguez pulls out the same recorder from yesterday, or maybe it’s a different one, and sets it on the table. He repeats his intro exactly as he said yesterday, but my thoughts are miles away. Pine, pine, pine. Why pine? I hate pine. “I never understood the fascination with pine,” I say.
“What?” Lieutenant Rodriguez says, looking up.
“Pine. I never understood it. That tree has its roots tangled into everything here.”
“Yes, because that’s the industry. But what exactly does this have to with Miss McDuffy’s disappearance?”
I give a small chuckle and look back out the window. “Everything,” I say looking back to him. “Everything.” I cross my legs at the ankle. Speak up, Estella. I take a deep breath and begin.
“Okay, so I told you how I began to hang around them. The Group I mean. And I told you of that first party,” Lieutenant Rodriguez nods. I nod. “Okay, well I guess the next thing- you know years ago there was a shooting in The Grove. A boy who was white, he began dating this Mexican girl, I think. I’m not exactly positive about all the details. I was a kid when it happened. But anyways, the girl’s brother made her tell the other boy to meet her in The Grove. Well, he did. But when he got there the girl’s brother pulled out a gun and shot him. And people only found out about it because for one a boy got shot and two because people’s kids came home with his blood splattered on their shirts. It was all the rage for a few weeks. The stories about the shooting, but they never said what happened to the boy or the girl. I think about them from time to time…” I sigh and look out the window. “Maybe it didn’t really happen. Maybe it is just a cautionary tale told by parents to warn their children into staying within their race. I don’t know. But if it is… If it is it’s a great story. And that’s the type of thing we grew up hearing. Me andThe Group.”
I look back at the lieutenant. His expression is bored and yet his furrowed brow tells me that he is frustrated. I give a small laugh. “You probably want me to get to point, don’t’ you?” He nods. “So anyway, junior year, I was in The Group. In fact I spent most of my time with them, since they never left my side. I lost my individuality. I joined The Group but over time I had become just another cog in its machinery. I started to stop seeing my family. We were always close, but after The Group swallowed me, I barely saw them. Missed my brother growing up. Robbed my parents of getting to watch me grow up. But I was so intertwined that I didn’t see all of this. Well I did. Eventually the magic and mystery surrounding The Group faded away and I saw the truth. Around October of that year. Of ‘98. Wait- first… I forgot. Junior year the twins moved. Their dad was in the army, and they had been here for around fourteen months, I think. I remember the day they told us about the move clearly. I was at Dani’s house. Stefanie walked in, didn’t even knock. We never knocked. She walked up to Dani, in tears. ‘We’re moving. My dad is being stationed in South Carolina.’ My face and heart dropped. Stefanie was so sweet. She was a cheerleader. And her blonde hair was always perfect, like her smile. But Dani, well, she just looked… betrayed almost. People can be very finicky about what they define as betrayal. I swear she looked like Stefanie just told her that she had told someone her deepest, darkest secret. Which was that- Never mind I’m getting ahead of myself.
“And yeah, she looked betrayed. ‘Call a meeting.’ That’s all Dani said. Stefanie nodded and left the house. I watched her leave, her blonde hair bouncing with each step. ‘You should go. Get ready and wait for the call,’ Dani said as she walked down the hall into her room. I stood there, in shock. Our friend had just told us that she was moving and all Dani had to say was to call a meeting. What the Hell? What kind of person responds that way to that? A shitty one. So I did what I always did. I did what Dani told me to; I went home and waited for the call. The meeting was set. I got dressed; all black as per Dani’s wishes, and caught a ride with Faye to The Grove. It was a Tuesday night; the agreed upon ‘Free Night’ so none of the other groups would be there. One by one our group arrived, until we were just waiting on the twins. When I asked about Mark Dani just waved me off. Turns out that Mark was doing something for Dani, at the time. He comes into the story later,” I say with a grimace, the smell of smoke filling my nostril. I reach for the glass of water and drain it. Breathe Estella. It’s just a memory. “Just a memory,” I mutter under my breath.
We stood there, in a half circle shape, in the middle of The Grove. The twins finally had arrived, just as Mark jogged up to Dani. Now if I had not have been standing next to her I wouldn’t have heard this but I was and I did. Funny how things work out sometimes, isn’t? He leaned to her ear and said, ‘It’s hot and ready to go.’ Dani smiled her signature smile and said ‘Great.’ Dani stepped out of the circle and walked up to the twins. She stopped in front of them. ‘Is it true that you are leaving?’ She asked in a loud voice. Stefanie nodded while Alex said ‘Yes. Next week.’ Dani nodded and turned to face us. ‘Two of us are leaving, is this acceptable?’ Faye and Mark shook their heads no. I stared wide eyed watching them, confused. I was utterly lost. No one had told me that once you were in that was it, no leaving. This was my first time hearing all of this. Dani turned to look at me. ‘Essie, do you think that this is acceptable behavior?’ I glanced at Stefanie. She was shaking her head back and forth. ‘N-’ I cleared my throat. ‘No. I don’t.’ ‘Good,’ Dani said. Then she turned back to the twins. ‘And you, were you not aware of what would happen if you or anyone of our members tried to leave?’ Stefanie was crying at this point. Alex had his arm around his sister, consoling her in the way protective older siblings do. ‘We knew the consequences. Yes,’ he answered for them both. Dani turned to Mark. ‘Go get it.’ Mark immediately took off jogging. I wanted to walk up to Dani and ask just what in the Hell she thought that she was doing, but I didn’t. I never questioned her, not until it was too late, at least. A few minutes later Mark came jogging back. He jogged right up to Dani, handing her a rod. It looked like a fire poker but the end was shaped like a fucking cross. I had never seen it before and I don’t know how they got it. I still don’t. And it was glowing a pinkish white color it was so hot. I didn’t know this until after, but that was where Mark was. He had been tending to a fire to heat the poker- the brander. Dani held it tightly in her left hand and motioned for us to come forward. Me, Faye and Mark walked up to her and the twins. I stopped at Dani’s side but Faye walked up to Stefanie and Mark walked up to stand by Alex. ‘Who’s first?’ Dani asked. Alex looked down at his sister. ‘Me. I’m the oldest. Do me.’ ‘Very well. Mark hold him.’ Alex tried to pull his arm off of Stefanie but she gripped him tighter. He faced her and said, ‘Stef, its fine, okay. Breath. Okay. This will be over soon.’ He kissed her head lightly and she let him go. Alex took off his shirt and Mark held his arms behind his back as Alex sank to his knees. Dani walked up to him. ‘Are you ready traitor?’ She asked Alex. ‘Go to Hell, Bitch,’ he said spitting on her black shoe. She just laughed. ‘After you,’ she said then pressed the brander to his shoulder-” I feel light headed. We were never supposed to tell. Never. But I am.
“Ms. Edwards? Are you okay?” Lieutenant Rodriguez asks.
I am the traitor now. Or I guess I always have been.
I hold my thumb up. “Yeah, just need a minute.” He nods. I shake my hands and feet out and roll my neck. “Okay. She pressed it into his shoulder and at this point I had covered my eyes but I should have pressed my ears closed. I have never heard anything like Alex’s screams before. They were so filled with pain- not just pain but pure agony. And then she removed the brander from him and Mark let him go. As soon as Mark’s grip loosened, Alex slumped to the ground. Dani walked over to Stefanie next. And at the sight of her brother laying on the ground in pain combined with the fact that the same fate was minutes away from becoming hers, Stefanie was hysterical. Faye was trying to hold onto her but she was thrashing around. ‘Mark, come help keep her still,’ Dani shouted. He did. Together, he and Faye, held Stefanie on the ground. But her skin was covered. Dani noticed this at the same time as me. I was dreading her words because I knew what she would ask of me. And she did. ‘Essie, come take off her shirt and help hold her.’ I did. I walked up to Stefanie and unbuttoned her shirt just enough to expose her shoulder. Then I held her, by the edges of her shoulders, with my head turned away. I couldn’t bear to watch. Just hearing it was torture enough. And after that everything happened kind of like flipping through a photo album. One picture was of me holding her. The next was the white hot brander almost touching her shoulder, and Stefanie’s tear and snot covered face in the background. Another was of Stefanie being branded, me leaning over puking at the smell of burning flesh and her mouth opened wide, releasing a scream that met those of her brother, and Dani laughing. Laughing!” I close my eyes, not wanting to look at Lieutenant Rodriguez’s judging stare.
“And the worse part? We left them. We left them alone in that field with freshly burnt skin for a whole night. We never checked on them or anything. I never checked on them or anything. They moved the next week like the said they would. I sometimes think about if I could have done something, helped them, but I know that I wouldn’t have made any difference. In fact if I had tried, I may have made their punishment worse. Probably would have gotten punished myself. And Heaven knows that they hate us. We forever marked them in the worst possible way. Their physical wound eventually healed, yes, and yes it will remind them but the worse thing is what we did to them emotionally. Can you imagine being held down by the people closest to you while they burned a brand into your skin; to forever remind you of being a trader just to protect The Group of people holding you down? The people you once called family?” I open my eyes and see the Lieutenant looking shocked.
I reach up and wipe away a tear. “Can that be all for now? I need a break; I’m emotionally drained.”
The lieutenant’s eyes snap to mine then back down as he presses a button on the recorder. “Uh, yeah. Of course. We’ll start again at three.” I get up and leave but before I can leave the room he speaks. “Why did she- you- brand them?”
“To remind them that if they ever wanted to tell our secrets, tell all that we did, that they were once part of us and did those things too. The branding was to ensure silence,” I say in a small voice then walk out.
I splash my face once, twice, three times. On the third I look up and watch the water drip down my face. After I walked out of the room, I went straight into the restroom a few doors down. Which is where I am currently standing. I lean down and cup some more water; trying to erase the images of burning flesh and the twin’s pain filled screams. Once, twice, three times more. I should’ve tried to stop Dani. But I didn’t. I never did. Her words were law and I was a law abiding citizen. I look up again. Instead of my face I see Alex’s as he did what none of us had even thought of. He defied Dani. “Go to Hell, Bitch.” He said these words with so much conviction and power that I should have known to heed his warning. I should have listened and saved myself. But even if I had, I would have been replaced faster than the twin’s burns healed. It would have been pointless.
I splash my face again. Once, twice. I watch as water droplets run down my neck and onto my blouse. “Shit,” I say realizing that almost my whole blouse is soaked. I turn to grab some paper towels but they’re out. “Just fucking great.” I march into a stall and rip some toilet paper off of the roll and attempt to dry my shirt. When that doesn’t help I sit on the toilet, with head in my hands. So many things done and I can do nothing to fix them- well, I can. And I am. That’s the only reason I’m here, why I’m back, to try and make amends. To atone while I still can.
I pick my head up and twist my wrist. 2:47. I hang my head, not ready to begin again, but I have to. I pick myself up. After one last glance at my disheveled appearance, I walk out of the restroom and back into the interview room.
Lieutenant Rodriguez is sitting at the table. I walk in and sit across from him. “Welcome back, Ms. Edwards. Ready to begin?”
“Yes. Thank you for the break, but dredging up all these old memories takes its toll.”
“That’s completely understandable. Oh, before we begin, while we were stopped I had my partner look into it, but it seems like the pine shaped burn has been around before.”
“Oh,” I say biting the inside of my cheek hard enough to draw blood.
He nods. “Yes, it appears that we have at least thirty cases from the past sixty years. And there are probably more but either we have no record of it or we just haven’t come across it yet. Which I find interesting because did you not say something yesterday about each generation having their own group?”
“Well, yeah, but it may just be an old wives tale,” I say suddenly fidgeting. Did I say too much? Shit. The Lieutenant raises an eyebrow. “If I were you, I would not place all of my eggs in the same basket, Lieutenant.”
“So do think it could even be remotely possible that these brandings are a more common occurrence than either of us know?”
“Well, it’s a possibility I guess. It’s also a remote possibility that Bigfoot and Nessie exist, but I have seen more compelling evidence for Elvis being alive and well on some island with Mr. King.”
He nods and writes something down. “Interesting. I’m going to do some more looking into it but I think that you just helped me with a large amount of cases.”
I close my eyes. “Good,” I say through clenched teeth. “Glad I could be of help.”
“Do you know of anyone else who has or even might have the brand? Someone that I could talk to?”
“No,” I say looking him in the eye. “Sorry, I don’t. But even if I did, which I don’t, but if I did, they wouldn’t talk. That’s the whole point of the brand. Secrecy. And if they have it, that means they are a traitor and untrustworthy.”
Lieutenant Rodriguez looks up from the notes he has been taking. “Untrustworthy? How so?”
I lean back into the seat. “Well for one, we never branded someone for good behavior. There had to be a reason. Always. And the only reason that someone was punished with branding was betraying The Group or The Group’s secrets. Like this,” I say waving my hand in between us. “This is considered betrayal. Right now I am being a traitor. I should be branded.”
“And who decided these rules?” He asks. I open mouth then close it. His eyes light up. “Who, Ms. Edwards? A name. All I need is a name…”
I think back. Never in the year with them, had not one of them ever mentioned who came up with our rules. I had always just assumed it was Dani, but it couldn’t have been her. it’s not possible. The Group had to be at least forty years old when I joined, so it could not have been Dani. But who? “I honestly don’t know,” I say crossing my arms. I try and think back more but no other names, even those of past members were ever mentioned. Even after the twins, we never said their names again or spoke about them. “The names of past members and those branded were never talked about, so no one ever mentioned The Group’s… creator I guess you could call it.”