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on: 03/01/19, 06:54 PM
I never loved my step-brother. Truthfully, I couldn’t even say I liked him. But by no means did he deserve his fate, whatever it may have been. I'm putting my memories to paper now, as best as I can recall them, before the pills and therapy snatch them away forever.
We became family when I was only 6 years of age. My mother died when I was barely out of infancy, and my father, in loneliness and grief, turned towards the first woman who showed an inkling of interest, or at least, tolerance. After a long and tumultuous romance, they tied their vows and almost immediately began to make each other miserable, a theme which resonated between my new brother and me.
Daniel wasn't a literal monster, but in the eyes of a younger sibling, he may well could have been. 2 years my senior, I grew up dreading the inevitability of a daily teasing or beating, knowing the hopelessness that he would try to make my every day miserable.
One instance sticks out in particular now, perhaps resurfaced by the irony of the recent events that have caused my incarceration. We grew up in a small country town, and our backyard consisted of a massive forest which stretched as far as a child could wander. I spent many hours in the wood, and where most children might feel lost or scared in the wilds, I felt safe from the conflicts that ravaged my home, away from Daniel and the evil woman he called mother. Not too far into the woods, just up a hill and through a thick bramble, was a pond of decent size, old and stagnant and covered in a green film of algae. While most of the forest was a comfort, the pond always bothered me. I hated everything about it, from its sickly green appearance to the faintly putrid stench that the still water produced. But, as it was wide enough to cover a large stretch of the forest, it was necessary to pass by it during my hikes.
One day, while I was unaware, my step-brother decided to follow me. He stalked me through the forest as I explored, just out of sight, like a predator on the hunt. As I paused by the pond to gather stones, Daniel silently closed the gap between us, creeping between the trees as he approached.
I never heard him coming. The next thing I knew, I was pushed through the air, and tumbled down into the water, crashing through the layer of algae and into the dark cold of the pond.
I panicked, struggling for air; desperate to escape the murky water that I was sure would swallow me up and leave nothing to be found. As I fought to breech the surface, I found I was being held down, forced to hold the last bit of air that burned to escape my lungs. Every terrible fear I knew felt like a reality, waiting for me at the bottom of the pond.
Finally, when I was all but sure that I would die, I found myself released. I broke the surface with a gasp, every muscle in my body screaming for air and the comfort of the shore. When I reached safety and had come to my senses, I became aware of an uproarious laughter behind me. I turned and saw what I should have expected: my step-brother, cackling like a madman at his brilliant ambush.
Of course, when I arrived home, his mother would hear nothing of my side of the story. Daniel told her that I fell in, and his best clothes were ruined trying to save me from drowning. The thrashing she gave me for my 'lies' was one of the worst I had ever received, and I was forbidden from ever venturing into the forest again.
As I said – I never loved my step-brother. But, there was one time, and perhaps only one time, that I felt close to him. It only took the death of his mother.
It happened when we were 17 and 19, respectively. While she was walking home from the liquor store late one night, a drunk driver swerved just a few inches off the road and struck her in the side. As she fell, her head landed on a guardrail, killing her instantly.
Our family is just full of little ironies.
In his grief, Daniel turned to God. I myself was a devout agnostic, finding no fault in faith, but many in religion. At the time, I supported his newfound devotion, believing it would be a positive influence in his life. After all, I couldn't think of any religion that would condone his prior behavior. At the very least, perhaps I would earn some well-deserved apologies for a childhood of mistreatment.
He found a church near home, one that I had never heard of – The Church of The Shepherd and Prior Day Saints – and spent most of his spare time engaged in study. As he had recently moved away into a nearby apartment complex, I rarely saw him anymore, and I was happy to no longer suffer his presence. I focused on my schoolwork and looking after my father, who had once again fallen into depression and drink after losing his second wife. My step-brother came by every few weeks to see how we were doing, and I quickly noticed a great improvement in his character. As I had hoped, he expressed deep remorse for his childish behavior, and often sought to make amends. On occasion, he would bring us small gifts or take us out to dinner, little tokens of gratitude for putting up with him for so long.
However, Daniel treated any information about his church like a closely-guarded secret. When pressed for details, he would casually deflect my questions, often changing the topic as quickly and politely possible. I learned almost nothing about his congregation, and could barely ascertain the specific branch of faith they followed. In passing, he would sometimes make references to Stars or Shepherds, which I assumed must have been a reference to the story of the Nativity. Another time, I overheard him on his phone talking to who I assumed must be his pastor, referring to the “King of Kings”, another metaphor I attributed to Christianity. Still, my brother was a private man, and I assumed, at first, that his reluctance to talk about his church stemmed from a desire to not impose his faith upon us, a position that I, at the time, was happy for.
Then, almost 6 months to the day of his mother's death, he told us that he planned to be Re-Baptized.
Of course, my father and I approved. He wanted us present at the ceremony, which would be held the following Sunday at a lake not far from home. I found myself feeling anxious as the date approached, as I was not accustomed to the ritual and pageantry of religion. The idea that dunking a man underwater could absolve him of his sins seemed like a quaint and ridiculous notion to me, but I wanted to appear supportive. After all, anything that would help my step-brother become a better man had to be something worthwhile.
The day came, and my father and I arrived dressed in our best clothes, which given our finances, weren't much to speak of. My father was so proud – he managed to stay sober for the ceremony, which was a small miracle unto itself. There were fewer parishioners present than I thought there would be, only about a dozen in all, not including the pastor and my step-brother.
The pastor was an older man, I estimated somewhere in his late 40s from his balding head. He was sporting a robe that was all black, save for a small crimson emblem emblazoned near his right breast that, from a distance, appeared to be a cross, wreathed in flames. He was pale, almost sickly, and wore spectacles that looked like they were designed in some earlier century. Yet, what stands out in my mind now, above all else, was his smile, a grin that stretched from ear to ear, like you'd imagine a shark would wear before feeding.
Daniel approached us out of the crowd, looking as pleased as I'd ever seen him. He moved in for a hug, which I modestly returned.
“I'm so happy you both could make it!” he exclaimed, making no attempt to hide his joy. “This is a big day for me, a huge day. Today everything turns around, I swear it,” he paused, and then: “Brother”.
The words took me back a bit, and for a moment, I was left speechless. In all the years I had known him, we had never been willing to consider each as other true siblings, and this was the first time I had heard him call me as such. “I... I'm happy to be here, Dan.” I stumbled over my words, still not ready to extend the same courtesy. Though in time, I thought... Maybe one day, soon, I could.
“I'm terribly sorry to interrupt,” the pastor exclaimed from the lake's edge, “But we do have appointments to keep, Daniel.”
“Excuse me, Father,” my dad said, a little shocked, as was I, by the pastor's rudeness. “We just got here, and we'd like a few words with-”
“No, dad, it's alright,” Daniel said, cutting him off mid-sentence. “There are... rules we have to follow. It's okay; we'll be done in just a minute.”
He turned from us and returned to the group. Noticing them now for the first time, I saw that none of them were wearing clothes that one would consider appropriate for such a special occasion. In fact, all of them were wearing the same outfit, a bland black-and-white wool garment that would have looked more at home in an Amish community. I began to wonder if my brother had joined some kind of a cult, but followed them anyway, down to the water's edge.
As my step-brother began to wade into the lake, hand-in-hand with his pastor, he paused and looked back towards my father and I with a look that I can only describe as concern, or perhaps even remorse, and said three words that will haunt me till my grave:
“Don't be afraid.”
And, before I could ask him what he meant, he turned back and walked out into the water. As he moved deeper, the crowd around us, without cue, began to sing a strange hymn that I had never heard before, ominous, but at the same time, uplifting. The inflection in their tone was closer to a chant than a melody.
It was around the time that I realized they were singing in perfect Latin that I knew something was terribly wrong. I dare not even attempt to transcribe it here.
Disregarding my step-brother's warning, I felt an intense desire to flee, to run into the water and rescue Daniel from what I was sure would be a horrible mistake, to escape into the woods and leave this surreal scene as many miles behind us as possible. But, even as this instinct grew, my feet felt rooted to the spot, my eyes transfixed on the ritual, unable to look away.
While the pastor was now in the lake past his waist, Daniel was slightly taller, and crouched down into the water to stand with his head just below the man's shoulders. He looked up to the pastor, his face awash in awe, as the man raised his hand above my step-brother's head and began to speak.
“We are here today to cleanse our brother Daniel of his sins,” he started. “To wash his spirit clean in this holy lake, and present him to our Lord as a man of Faith renewed, his soul reborn, his devotion absolute.”
He closed his eyes then, and with a look of utmost concentration, uttered a chant in another tongue, one that I still haven't been able to place to a region or time in known history. Even without knowing their meaning, I could sense a power in those words, one that no other religion could claim authority over. It lasted all of thirty seconds, but when he finished speaking, I felt like I had been trapped in them for days.
And then, with a swiftness I wouldn't have expected from a man of his advanced age, he lowered his hand to the scruff of my step-brother's neck and, with his other arm, submerged my brother into the lake.
In preparation for this day, I had watched other baptisms on the internet, so I would know what to expect. I knew that my brother shouldn't have been under the surface for more than a half-second, a whole if the pastor wasn't quite as quick as the younger minsters. When, at six seconds, Daniel was still being held under, my Father began to yell.
I honestly couldn't tell you what he screamed at the pastor; the next minute of my memory is still terribly muddled by what transpired. When I try to remember, there are small gaps, little details that I've forgotten, as if my mind is still trying to come to terms with what surely must have been impossible. What I do remember is terrible enough, and I hope that these abstractions are merely my psyche trying to cope with the reality. But, this is what I recall.
As my father stormed off into the lake, the choir of strangers around us ceased their singing and, aside from the sound of my father's ranting and splashing, it became unnaturally quiet, and the air became as still as a crypt. I remember, then, my father ceasing his advance, stopping mid-sentence as he became aware, as I was, that there was something utterly dark and unholy transpiring before us.
It was then that the pastor looked up from where he held my brother (who had now been underwater for a full 20 seconds), and slowly shifted his gaze onto me. He smiled, still, but that vaguely off-putting grin had transformed, twisted itself into an expression of simple, unmistakable malice. His eyes were black as pitch.
Daniel, who by now was surely drowning, began to thrash in the water, his death throes kicking up waves that disrupted the perfect silence that had descended on the lake. My brother was a strong man, young and healthy, and yet this old priest held him under the surface like he was a child, his grip unrelenting. He was dying before me, and yet, my horror still held me in place, unable to move.
The struggle did not end, as far as I could tell, so much as it was interrupted. Originating from the spot where my brother was fighting for his life, I noticed a dark stain spreading slowly across the surface, a jet-black substance that seemed to have the consistency of ink or oil, branching into a tendril-like form that seemingly moved with purpose, defiling the water as it crept ever closer to the shore.
Here is an empty spot in my memory, a moment I'm sure I don't truly wish to remember. Where it resumes, my father is gone.
The next moment I can recall, I'm standing alone on the shore. The parish has disappeared, presumably taken wherever my father has vanished to, or perhaps dispersed into the forest, having found the ritual satisfactory. In the water, still, the pastor stands, still holding down my brother, whose last desperate struggles are dying down to a few futile thrashes, barely causing a ripple over the surface. Then, with a last few bubbles of escaping air, I knew that he was gone.
The pastor was still staring at me, his eyes the same shade as the stain that consumed the lake, his gaze never leaving mine, his smile never faltering. He wore a look of grim satisfaction, a knowing that his godless act had come to completion. And, his eyes never leaving mine, he began to slowly descend into the depths, as if the ground beneath had opened up beneath and swallowed him, accepting him into the dark. It was only then, alone by the lakeside, that I found I could move again. I promptly fell to my knees, and I wept.
The police never found my brother, my father, or any proof of the churches existence. They even had the audacity to accuse me of their murder, but I was released on lack of evidence. After all, there wouldn’t be much of a case if they couldn’t find any bodies to pin me to. Begrudgingly, they sent to the care of a local psychiatric hospital. While the staff here has treated me well, I hold a bitter resentment towards them. No one here believes my story; they call it 'the fevered delusions of a disconcerted mind'. They try to drown my memory in pills and hunt for hidden meanings, but they'll find none. I am certain, as terrible and impossible as it may be, that what I saw, what I witnessed, is beyond the grasp of a sane mind. I know it to be true.
And, when I lie in my bed at night, unable to sleep, I comfort myself by thinking that my brother knew what he was volunteering for. I tell myself, his faith had revealed to him that there exist gods older than man, than religion, perhaps older than time itself. Gods that lie just beyond our understanding, waiting for their chance to reign again. He knew that they were coming, and choose to willingly give himself up to them, to usher their return to our world. And I hear, as if he were standing beside me, his final message:
“Don't be afraid.”