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It’s okay if you don’t know the story. Most people don’t. To be honest, most people are perfectly content without knowing the truth. But you’re different, I hope. You’re not one of those people who find contentment in ignorance, the way I did, the way all children in my village did. I’m going to take you back to an October night, a long time ago, a night when the truth found me and I wasn’t ready for it.
But first, I suppose this is the part of the story where I tell you a little bit about myself, what a little rascal I was growing up, how I played tricks on my brothers, how I didn’t eat my vegetables, and so on. I am Adam. I live in a village located approximately ten miles south of Hartford, Connecticut, a place called Innocence. I’m the second son of four brothers. My parents were special people. Mother was a kind woman who stood two inches below me and one above my younger brother Caleb. If there was ever a gentle soul in the world, it dwelled inside her. I’m good with my mind and hands, thought I might be a writer someday; but for now I work alongside Father. He’s a carpenter, the best one in Innocence, people say. Mother tells me I got everything from him, even my awful freckles. “You are your father’s son,” she used to tell me, though I thought it unfair being the only unlucky one of my brothers to be “blessed” with the curse of red spots on my already embarrassing plump cheeks.
Our village was perfect. A place of integrity. Our way was simple, beautiful. Forgive me, if my opinion seems biased. It would take an eternity to list all of its wondrous parts, but it was our hearts which kept Innocence alive. The Influencers taught me that it was our faith that made the plants grow, caused the air to smell clean and fresh, brought the flowers’ true beauty to light. Because of what he had done. Walter Crumb. Little is known about his origins, except that he was our founder, the patron of Innocence, and that long ago, it was decided by Divinity that he would light the fire within all men.
Don’t ask me what that means. This statement often left children bewildered. The Influencers made sure every man, woman and child knew who Walter Crumb was, and what he meant to our village. There was never doubt about anything an Influencer said; their word was the truth, and that was that. Influencers were appointed by the Illumi Council, the circle of leaders in Innocence. Father was an Influencer, and he’d expressed a number of times my affinity for thinking like one. “Like father, like son,” he would say with a laugh, but because he usually wore a stoic countenance, I often found myself vexed by him. Perhaps that was why I loved him so. He was a mystery even to me.
Children here didn’t question the Influencers. They taught us mathematics and science, literature, of course, and philosophy passed down by the legendary Walter Crumb. It was taught that one day he would return to his origin, and heal the world, the cruel, impure society which lingered outside out gates. By injecting us with philosophy, the Influencers sought to shape the minds of every child, to believe; then he would someday be a great leader. Because our village was small, leaders were necessary to keep Innocence alive. Above all, we gave thanks for Walter Crumb. According to teaching, he implemented all the knowledge and good will Innocence would ever need, all we would ever need. No lecture began without acknowledging him. As a child, I believed every word of it. But it wasn’t until my fourteenth birthday that I learned the truth.
It was October twelfth. We celebrated, our family lost in joviality and enjoyment as I made my journey as a man. Everyone was happy except for me. I made frequent trips to the outhouse, citing a severe bladder problem as a cause for my spontaneous departures. It all just felt so insipid. One birthday defining who I was, telling me I was a man when I didn’t even know what being a man meant. To my surprise, my efforts to remain elusive and absent for as much of the celebration as possible were thwarted by Father’s unexpected visit to our back yard.
“You can’t hide out here forever,” he said.
“I’m not,” I replied with a long sigh. “I mean, you’re right. But what does this party mean, Father? Am I a man now because they say I am?”
Father seemed gentle as he hugged me, as if he could feel what I was feeling. “Adam, the only person who can answer that question is you.”
I pushed him away. “I’m not sure.”
He looked into my eyes and could see my doubt, but grinned. “Son, I think it’s time.”
Father extended his hand. His hand was covered in blisters and worn by fatigue and strenuous labor, and felt rough as I reached up to grab him.
“It’s time to tell you the truth.”
The night was cool. Father held my hand, as if it was our first time doing so and he wasn’t sure if I would let go. The party would continue without its host, but my father believed this was something he had to do.
“Where are you taking me, Father?” I asked, vexed after walking in the dark for about thirty minutes. My hand felt crushed inside his strong grip. He was a statue—stoic and unflinching, almost frightening when seen in the moonlight. He looked down at me with two cold eyes; they seemed somehow made of a mixture of heartbreak and readiness. I didn’t know why he looked at me in such a way. Why, in all my fourteen years, we had never walked this path together. But I continued with him, my hand in his down a narrow path I had trekked numerous times before with my friends.
“Father, the Influencers forbid this place. We’re not allowed to go here.”
Father glanced down and smiled, “I am an Influencer, son. Do not pretend to know more than me. Besides, that never stopped you before.”
We moved along in silence. The trees felt like onlookers on a fearful spectacle, their branches scratching my neck as I passed them. A howl every now and then set my heart racing, no light other than the moon to guide us on this strange quest. I swear I heard a monster lurking in our midst, but Father assured me there was nothing to fear, that my imagination was wandering too far.
“Adam, you mustn’t tell anyone what you see tonight. You mustn’t tell them about Walter Crumb.”
I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to leap out of my skin. My eyes felt like bursting out of their sockets and the only question that came out was, “Walter Crumb…lives in our village?” By my account, he must have been nearly two hundred years old.
Father answered me without words. His face, eyes and body were rigid and betraying. Anticipation and mixed dread flooded my heart. Father’s tight grasp started to slip, as sweat trickled down my palms.
The dark path came alive to me. The crunch of the leaves beneath our feet, mixed with the scattering of the loose stones our soles brushed aside as we walked, attacked with eeriness. We were wandering in the dark, but I trusted Father and I could only speculate where this dark voyage would end. What would Walter say to me? What would I say to him? Surely I wasn’t prepared to meet him yet. He didn’t have time to talk to a child like me anyway. Perhaps this was a birthday joke.
“Your brother wasn’t ready for this. I am hoping it is not the same with you.” The only thing I remembered of my brother’s fourteenth birthday was the way he fell into my eyes when he came home, as if life itself had been taken away. The recollection caused me to fear what lay ahead.
We stopped at the entrance. A gate blocked our passage into a foreign place that now frightened me. I swallowed hard, as Father wrapped his arms around me and asked, “Are you ready, son?”
Why was I so afraid? Walter Crumb was a legend. We believed in him; he made us better mortals. But a storm blurred my conscience. What would I really find behind this gate? What was he talking about? All these years, folks in Innocence walked around talking about Walter Crumb, his marvelous wonders. The Influencers re-enacted his miracles, told us why to believe.
But I thought he had vanished long ago. A sickness or a disease, perhaps a mission stole him away. Had he been here all along, or had he returned? Was Innocence ready? Was the world ready? Part of me wanted to scream at my father for keeping such privileged secrets from me; the other part sank with fear.
This time I looked back into those cold eyes of his, eyes that had seen the world twice longer than I had been alive; eyes that guided my brothers and me toward noble things and good will since our journey from the first world. “I am ready, Father,” I said, letting his hand go for the first time that night.
Father revealed the key that would lead us into this wide unknown world. As it opened, a fog led us in, and then lifted from the place. I could see my breath, outlined in the darkness. “Evil does not exist here, Adam,” he assured me.
“Where are we?” I asked, the cold filling my lungs.
“Walk with me.”
The place was unlike anything my imagination could ever create. Stones four feet high shot up from the ground and I noticed familiar names etched into their lifeless, gray faces. Confusion raged inside me, as I stared, reaching out to touch one of them; for some reason grandmother’s name was looking back at me.
“What are these?” I asked.
His gaze reworked my soul, as he knelt down and rested his hands upon my shoulder. “They’re called Memories, son. This place is a Dead Yard. When people die, this is where they rest.”
“What are you talking about? What does it mean to die?”
Tall reeds climbed up my leg, and the mud dragged my feet deep into itself. As my eyes drifted, I saw the Memories stretched out across the open field.
“When Time calls the soul, son, people vanish. We make sure of it. They are removed from our village, taken, interred here.” He paused to gather his thoughts. “The human heart bears much, sometimes too much.” Sadness fell out of him like tears.
I recoiled. “I don’t understand. Why did you bring me here?”
Silence broke me in half like a weak branch on a dying tree. “Look around you, Adam,” he said. “Look around you.” A pain stabbed my chest. He pointed to each Memory individually. “They are men and women from our village. Once they were like you, like me. You remember Page Donahue, and Red Granger? Last year, Page stopped breathing in her sleep. The Influencers removed her the next morning and assured her husband she was
Safe. Red, however, came to us, ready to expose the truth to Innocence…” It looked like my father was shattering. “They’re not ready, son. The children are not ready. But you are. This is the truth.”
“You lied to me,” I screamed. “The Influencers, everyone has lied to me. Where is Walter Crumb?”
“Here.” He pointed to his chest, and then he touched mine. A soft grin played with his lips.
The world sank inside my weary soul. It caved in and the only thing I could do was cry.
Father held me in his arms.
“How can I be a man, Father?” I sobbed, buried in his shirt. “Men don’t cry.”
“Who can regulate the rules of a man’s heart? I’ve cried many times in my life, son. But an Influencer must remain strong, even if his heart is wounded.”
“Where is Walter Crumb?” I wept, doubt, confusion and dread filling up my heart. I never chose to notice the vanishings, the bread crumbs leading to the inevitable truth, but my blindness became clear now. Living a lie was easier. All those whom I’d shared precious moments with. Gone. Like Walter Crumb. Behind my tears, I saw a name, blurred across the Memory. Timothy, it read. He was once my closest friend. He vanished three years ago when his weak heart stole him away.
“You will be a great man, son.” Father’s lip quivered with sentiment, as he stared into my wet eyes. “Adam, you are now a part of this secret.
“We must go back, Father, we must go back.”
“Son, Innocence will continue through you and our sons and daughters. You are an Influencer now, there is no turning back.”
No turning back, I thought, wiping the tears away. We embraced. I realized that one day I would vanish, one day my name would be written against stone. Left to the world as only a Memory.
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