With death comes peace, he kept telling himself. The spring that gives leads to the inevitable fall of life. If it weren’t me then, it would have been no one. Certain situations leave one fighting for forgiveness. My life or his…my judgment or his. Who will pay the ultimate price? The sorrow that prevails is nothing more than regret from earlier times. I forgave myself years ago but can Joseph ever do the same. The shadow once again leaned back against its hollow wall of emptiness and hung there for light to come. If only the light would come.
Leaving the tavern behind I headed for Mrs. Beatina’s ‘Have All.’ Hearing my boots clamor across the uneven planks of pine and oak, I steadied myself to have a conversation with probably the nicest lady I have ever met other than my mom. Pushing on the door and hearing the little brass bell announce my arrival I looked towards the counter only to find young Jessie sitting behind the counter. I asked her if Mrs. Beatina was in and was told that she had to leave town on personal business for a few days, and Jessie asked if she could help me.
Feeling almost relieved to hear the news, I went to a shelf and grabbed some tobacco and paid for it and asked when Mrs. Beatina would be back.
“Two or three days” was the best answer Jessie could give.
I thanked her and headed for the church at the opposite end of town. Walter and William could wait; maybe Caleb would give me some straight answers to the burning question that was bouncing around in my skull. What does everyone seem to know about my father that I do not? Unless, unless Levi’s last words were lies and I was being set up to give myself away with murder and blood on my hands, this could become tricky if I didn’t watch myself and run this gauntlet flawlessly.
Crossing Briggs Street, the only street, and stepping once again up onto the wooden boardwalk I hang a right and see the entrance to the modest church a few doors down. Coming to its entrance, I hesitate to take my questions inside. Out of all the people on my list, I know Caleb will be the most likely to answer me honestly, and it is that honesty that is causing my hesitation. Am I ready for the truth? Will it make things better or worse? The unknown is at least unknown, and that’s not always a bad thing.
Leaning forward into the churches door I find myself engulfed in darkness and dust seen only from the light coming through the three windows on the right wall like solid beams of shifting matter slicing across the single large room. The floor is plain enough with its nail heads exposed, but that is where the plain ends and the majesty begins. The pews, being stained with a darkened oak, and hand carved swirls and flowers inlaid across every inch of their backs and sides and legs. The legs themselves are carved to mimic the legs of lions with such precision one might expect them to stand up and move around. The two rows of six benches sit perfectly aligned and face a centered podium and have been raised above ground level by at least three feet. The podium itself has a brass cross built into the wood, so it’s flush with the wooden surface, and the surface has an artist’s rendition of the hereafter carved seamlessly across the podiums front face and sides. The podium itself flares at the top like a spring tulip in full bloom. Behind the podium resting quietly in the dark and hanging in line with the podium is a large wooden cross. Large enough to not need any décor of its own, its massive size says all that need be and any other adornments would simply fall short of adding to the structure of the symbol.
In the far left corner behind the podium sits the only other door where I’m assuming Caleb is sitting at this very moment reading his good book and preparing for his next climb onto that podium, walking slowly over to the door, I rap the wood with two quick taps of the back of my hand and take a step back. Standing there, I hear the creak of a chair being abandoned and the door handle being turned.
“Hello, Caleb. I need to ask you some questions if you have the time.”
Caleb just stared blankly at me for a few seconds and then quickly said of course, and he walked out of his back room and took a seat in the front pew. “How can I help you today Joseph?”
Caleb was a small man with sandy brown hair that was always neatly cropped. His eyes held a constant look of yearning, a yearning to help others. His black outfit never changed when he was in public, and that was most of the time. His face carried no deceitful characteristics. The skin held tightly to prominent cheekbones and was colored a little too white for my taste. His posture was that of a perfect nature and seemed beaten into him at a young age. Overall Caleb was nothing short of friendliness, too bad he chose this profession.
Wondering how to attack his question in the right way I simply ask, “What do you know about what happened to my father?”
“I never knew your father,” he said looking me dead in the eyes.
“What do you mean you never knew my father? You were one of the few that helped looked for him when he went missing. Why would you help look for someone you didn’t know?” The thought of such an act seemed to fall out of my realm of understanding. I guess that is why people like Caleb end up in such a line of work. My question to Caleb was reason enough to others why someone such as myself didn’t go into the same vocation.
“What I say is true Joseph, I never knew your father, but I did know your son.”
The room got darker and narrower all at the same time. Was Ogden’s magic elixir still swirling in my mind and coming back to mess with my thoughts and hearing?
“I don’t have a son Caleb. I’ve never even married. I’m simply asking what you know about my father’s disappearance. Nothing more; nothing less.”
Caleb took a deep breath and began a story that sounded as made up as the book he preaches from every damn day. In this story he put forth there was a man who started out hunting to make some more money for his family and found that he was extremely good at it, so he quit his job at the mill and began hunting and trapping full time. This man had a son that was never allowed to go with his father out into the forest because the father felt it too dangerous for the young boy until one day he finally took the boy with him on an outing. After a few outings and a few rules laid out for the boy, the boy was finally, to the young kid’s excitement, allowed to go out on his own. On the boys first outing his father wished him luck and patted him on the back and his mom gave him some food rolled in a rag and kissed him goodbye. Little did these parents know that this would be the last time they would ever see their only child, a child that went by the name Joseph Tooley.
“Jacob! Jacob! Are you still with me? Can you hear me, Jacob?”
The world went black as my legs completely gave out. The last word I remember hearing as I was going down was Jacob. The first word I heard coming back was Jacob. Pushing Caleb away from me and scurrying backward against the far wall, I sat stunned and frozen. Absolutely frozen. If what I had been just told to me was true then my entire life for the past ten years has been a lie, a smoke screen, and a mental collapse in every sense of the word. Everyone I’ve come into contact with in those ten years has perpetuated that lie and let me live that lie. Why? Why would they let me fall so far?
Thawing out long enough to reach into my coat pocket and retrieve my pistol I now have it pointed directly at Caleb and screamed that it couldn’t be. “What are you trying to pull Caleb? What’s the point of these lies?”
Not backing away Caleb simply said, “Your name is Jacob Tooley. You were married to Mary Tooley, and you had a son Joseph who went missing ten years ago, and you blamed yourself from the very beginning, so much in fact that you became Joseph and let Jacob die instead.”
“My father is not dead; he is missing!”
“Your son may not be dead, but he is missing Jacob.” Caleb countered.
“Stop calling me Jacob! My name is Joseph! My name is Josep…” and blackness again. This time the light didn’t come back as quick or as bright. And when my eyes did adjust, I found Caleb, Walter, William, Luke, and Ogden all standing around me. I quickly reached for my pistol but found nothing in my jacket pocket but a small vile.
“Looking for this Jacob?” Luke was holding my pistol in his hand.
“You have no right to take my pistol Luke so hand it over.”
“Well let’s see if Caleb wants me to keep you behind bars for pulling a loaded weapon on him in a church of all places.” And now Luke was asking Caleb something that I couldn’t quite make out. While trying to figure out what was going on Caleb’s story came rushing back into my consciousness.
Seeing William, I asked if it was true. “William, what can you tell me about my father’s disappearance?”
The same response came back at me, “I never knew your father, Jacob.”
“ What is this? Why would you all let me go on like this? Why?”
No answer came. No words to comfort. No helping hand to lead the way. No anything. Nothing but me—nothing but them.
Everything at once.