Two brown carbonated streams dripped from the corners of Lee Beacon’s mouth. His neck craned back, his head tilted to the sky and the sun reflected off his clouded eyes while he pushed the red plastic cup against his lips and poured the remnants of his drink down his throat. He crunched the cup flat against the table, wiping his mouth and smacking his tongue against his lips.
“Just sliver of whiskey in this, right?”
Diego and I cheated glances at each other from the corners of our eyes before returning to him on the other side of the picnic table. There was no recognition in his face. Nothing to suggest he’d noticed our little glance or was even aware just how much alcohol he’d consumed already.
Our plan was working. A little nudging, a little banter between young men to peer-pressure the religious twenty-year-old who’d drunk perhaps only a handful of times in his life to have a few mixed drinks at the Church barbecue after mass one fine Sunday afternoon. Once his taste for it was gone, each clean or weak drink packed a lot more alcohol than he thought.
His tongue had already loosened. So much that it was literally dangling out of his mouth.
I glanced over my shoulder back towards our Church. St. Augustine’s yellow rounded steeple cast a shadow that fell neatly over the area where we sat and all the way to the old cemetery beyond us. We’d managed to situate ourselves on the farthest bench from the barbecue and therefore the safest place for interrogation. Kids ran around, screaming and laughing in the main area by the grill. Adults stood in clusters with Bud Lights and hot dogs in their hands. All of them unaware that we’d isolated their do-gooder golden boy and gotten him the drunkest he’d ever be.
An afternoon cookout wasn’t an uncommon Sunday event for the little Catholic community outside Hebbronville. They’d put one on every three or four weeks at least. It’s the kind of thing that happens in a small community in rural Jim Hogg County. The kind of place where you know everyone in town and notice when someone skipped out on Mass for the week. The kind of place where you grow up and get the hell out or stick around and waste away until you die.
Diego filled another cup for Lee. It was a new one he’d had hidden on the seat next to him with its bottom lined an inch deep in whiskey before filling the rest with coke.
Perhaps we’d pushed the limits already. I grabbed his arm and stared at him. He shook away and turned to Lee with a smile and held the cup out to him.
Lee grabbed it but hesitated before drinking. He squinted and swirled the mix around inside his cup.
“There’s alcohol in this,” he said.
“No señor,” Diego answered. “Classic coke.”
“I can smell it. Almost makes me want to throw up.”
“Only a sliver, Lee. Don’t be a bitch about it.”
Lee turned from Diego to me as if he were stuck in some kind good-cop-bad-cop routine. I didn’t know what to say, so I just nodded. As insignificant as the gesture was, he took a tiny sip and coughed nearly the whole thing back up.
“Too strong,” he said and set the cup down on the table.
I tried to think about how such a character could have brought himself to do what we suspected him of. How could a skinny white boy, with a short crew cut neatly combed, spending most of his time at work or volunteering at the Church bring himself to commit such a crime?
The Beacons were one of the most clean-cut, well-to-do families in town. Everybody knew their name. His father had landed him at the bank after high school where he worked nine-to-five Monday to Friday. He probably did Bible Study in between chores on Saturday before spending his Sunday helping out his dad again around the church.
Could he really have been guilty of stealing the donation money after mass? Could he really have been sticking around to have his go with Sunday School girls aged fifteen years or younger?
We’d first heard rumours from Lee’s cousin, Jamie, at a party a few months before. We didn’t believe it at first until we kept hearing the same story getting whispered around in different social circles. More often than not, it was coming from people whose word I trusted.
If it were true, that would make him not so different than the common local burnouts like Diego and myself. The poor kids from religious families with darker sides kept out of sight from everyone in town. It’s not like we hadn’t grabbed our share of the donation money before. We were out late car hopping and chasing around the handful of girls left our age who hadn’t ditched town after graduating.
The difference was that we hid in the dark. Lee was hiding in the plain sight. Our crimes were petty, our sexual exploits–legal. We drew our line in the sand and stayed behind it. It was Lee who we originally saw as the monster… not ourselves.
Lee finally took another sip of his drink. Either by choice or the alcoholic content slipping his mind.
A group of the Sunday girls ran by us holding hands before circling back to the main group. Among that group was Lee’s eleven-year-old sister, Lily, and Diego’s sister Martine who’d just turned fifteen.
Diego had become convinced that Martine had started acting strangely once those rumours started surfacing. He said that she would come home after Sunday School and lock herself in her room for the rest of the day. She was lethargic when she finally showed her face on Monday morning. Like something was clearly hidden beneath the surface.
Lee shielded his face from them while they passed like he couldn’t stomach the thought of seeing his little sister witness him drunk. I wonder how he would like it some other older boy was staying late to swoon over his little sister unaccompanied after Sunday School.
“I… don’t look drunk, do I?” he said after they’d passed.
He’d reached the point where he felt comfortable confiding in us. That was all the evidence we’d need to know we had him where we wanted him. Not just because he was unaware of his obvious glossed over eyes and word-slurring, but because the thought the two Latino delinquents across from were actually his friends.
I checked over my shoulder again to make sure we were still out of sight and out of mind. Not much had changed. The same kids played over by their parents. Adults still chatted amongst one another. Father Carmazzi made his rounds with his hands on his stuffed belly. He always made sure he had a chance to chat with everyone. Even Mr. Beacon laughed with a beer in hand while he stood over the grill.
I tapped Diego on the knee. It was time to extract the information.
“So, Lee,” Diego said. “I hear you’re still spendin’ most of you Sundays round here. Never bail out like the rest of us.”
Lee pressed a tired face into his palm. His head tilted from side to side.
“Volunteerin’ my whole life. Prolly will take a bigger role like my pops pretty soon.”
“But you’re twenty now, right? Not like you’re gonna have a whole lot of fun. You must be into other things outside work and the church?”
“My faith is my life.”
“But what do you really do?” I interjected. “It’s just a small church. Can’t be that much work. Not enough for you to hang around for hours every Sunday.”
“There’s lots of work. Have to clean up after Mass, get everything back in order. We’ve got to organize the events. We’ve got to work meet with Father Carmazzi to make sure everything is runnin’ smooth.”
Diego was started to clench his fists under the table.
“We don’t think you’re just stickin’ around to help out. You got other business you’re takin’ care of.”
“Only church business. Think I’ll go talk to my dad now for a b–“.
“You stealin’ donation money?” Diego interrupted, how voice now much firmer. “That’s what your cousin Jamie told us.”
Lee burped behind his fist. His eyes shifted between Diego’s and mine. His leg started to bob up and down under the table.
“Never stolen a thing.”
“That’s not what we’ve been hearing,” I said. “Apparently you’ve been up to some other shit as well. Been creeping around with the girls after Sunday School.”
“Why are people talking about it then?”
“I… I don’t know” he said and tried to stand up. Both Diego and I jumped as well and with all four arms pushed him back down.
“If you’ve got something to confess, I recommend doing it now you little prick,” Diego said from behind clenched teeth. His eyes were opened wide and furious. A look I’d only seen on his face a few times before where the end result was always catastrophic.
Lee visibly shook all over. I noticed his eyes finally leaving ours and darting over our heads. Behind us, Father Carmazzi and the other devout volunteers were headed past us and towards the church. They had the entire Sunday School group with them.
Lee took the opportunity to save himself. He shot up and ran over to them. A fake smile and a hand visor over his eyes to shield his impairment from them.
“Kids are in need of a little Bible-thumping,” Mr. Beacon said.
Lee gave a thumbs-up and kept his eyes on the ground. He stayed with them all the way until the church doors were closed safely behind them.
Diego got up and started to walk after them. He wasn’t going to stop until I literally caught up to him and held him back.
“I’m gonna kill that motherfucker,” he said.
“Not here, you aren’t.”
“Where? Maybe we get him after work outside the bank?”
“In broad daylight, right on Main Street for everyone to see?”
“Where then? This tight-ass piece-of-shit rarely leaves his house for anything but work or church.”
“Exactly. So we’ll catch him red-handed in the act. No one will be around when he’s stealing the money let alone waiting for the girls to leave class. This way… we’ll know for sure.”
“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Go now in peace my children. May you find beauty in the day as the Lord intended.”
Father Carmazzi made the sign of the cross, pressed his hands together and bowed his head. The pews, all filled with good Catholic folk, shifted one-by-one and slowly got to their feet and headed towards the exit.
I lingered on the tattered cushion kneeler. My parents and all the people around me stood up to adjust their belts and Sunday dresses. I peeked out of the corner of my eye to see Diego doing the same. His eyes were closed in front in his hands pressed together. Whatever thoughts circulating inside his head they were surely not that of prayer.
His parents guided Martine out from their seats and out towards the main hall. It wouldn’t be long before she was in the classroom.
Four weeks had passed since our interrogation at the barbecue. We’d decided it best we wait before taking action. September had come and Dallas Cowboys talk was filling the streets, homes, and even the after-church discussion. We hoped the lapse in time would be enough for Lee to let our little confrontation fade into the background of his thoughts and let his guard down. Just long enough for him to feel safe and get back to the same shit we knew he’d been pulling.
The agreement between Diego and I was simple. There could be no excess of bodily harm unless proof either by confession or by action directly witnessed by us. If he gave us either of those, we’d be the ones to serve him justice. The police could ask him questions later.
The Beacon family past our pew. One of the last families to leave, as was their routine. Lee didn’t look around or shift in any way to make me think he was uncomfortable or suspected anything. He splashed some holy water on his forehead and left the Nave with a stupid grin on his face.
I looked to Diego again who nodded back. We both got up and followed them out. We carried out some bullshit conversation out to the main foyer and mingled with the crowd. We stuck around and chatted– like we always did. All the while, both our eyes constantly darted towards Lee, who had stationed himself by the main doors and shook everyone’s hand who would lend it while people slowly trickled out.
Diego’s family finally wandered over to mine and we joined the conversation. Our parents joked about how they’d both managed to raise such lazy young men who were still hanging around the house and hadn’t yet managed to land themselves full-time jobs. We both smiled and played along, knowing they would faint if they knew even the slightest semblance of who we were in our private lives.
The things we had already done. The things we would do that day. Not the good Catholic boys we were intended to be.
Diego started our pre-rehearsed story and told everyone that we were headed out. We were going to drive back to his place and play Madden until the actual game started at one.
His parents would be out of town visiting his grandmother that day, and Martine wouldn’t be back until 3PM when Sunday School ended. We’d allowed ourselves more than enough time to get our job done and get back before anyone could suspect us. Diego had even left the TV and Xbox running in his room as if it would serve sufficient evidence we’d been there all along.
We headed out into the parking lot and into Diego’s silver Ram. We sped out of the parking lot and down Country Line 17 and back towards his house. He pressed hard on the gas, trying to put as much distance between us and everyone else as he could. When we were safely out of sight from any car, he pulled onto one of the side roads and then off into a little wooded area. There, we waited patiently; chewing tobacco and dragging cigarettes while the familiar church-goers cars passed us on their way back home. None of them with any reason to suspect the two young men had pulled off the road.
We couldn’t wait too long. We had to head back before Lee had time to do… whatever it was he was going to do.
“Go,” I said and tossed my cigarette out the window. I was pretty sure that everyone had already passed. One of the advantages of living in such a small place where you could recognize everybody’s car.
Diego turned the engine on and started us back towards the St. Augustine’s. Neither of us said a word for that portion of the ride. The old vehicle creaked and moaned as we sat in silence. We were focused only on the task at hand.
Diego pulled the truck off the road before we reached the lot and steered us behind some bushes that ran along the back of the cemetery. From where we were, we should have been totally out of sight from the church.
“Ready?” Diego asked.
“Ready to keep your cool?”
“You know this motherfucker is the bad guy, right? You don’t have a sister. But try to imagine hearin’ stuff like this about yours.”
“We don’t even know if it’s true.”
“We do, though.”
“It’s just talk.”
“That slimy fuck talked enough at the barbecue. And he’ll talk again when he feels the blade on his throat.”
I looked out through the shrubs and towards the fading yellow bricks of the Church.
“Remember the rules,” I said. “No killing. Don’t use anything that will leave a trace or knock something to the floor.”
Diego turned around and started rummaging under the back seats. “Anything else?” he said from over his shoulder.
“Just wait for the proof.”
Diego returned from the back with two black masks– the types that went all the way over your head and only had holes over the eyes and mouth along two sets of black gloves to match. He also had a choice of weapons. Two crowbars, three rusty old knives that he’d probably found in his parent’s garage and a massive pair of bolt cutters you would need both hands to use. He even had an old potato sack to choke him out.
I held my breath as I looked over them.
“I’m serious about this,” he said. “Consider this your proof.”
We moved slowly at first. We crouched, carefully placing each step in the dirt like there were watchmen on patrol. We ducked behind crumbling tombstones, picnic tables, and any obstacle along our path until we reached the back doors.
We paused below the rectangle-shaped window they connected. It was covered with a thin transparent curtain that could be easily seen through from either side. I reached up and gently tested the handle to see if they’d been left unlocked.
They had been. And why wouldn’t they? Who would suspect anyone trying to break inside a church less than an hour after Mass had ended?
It took us a little while before we felt confident that no one had noticed us and slowly brought our heads up to peek inside.
Lee was right in our crosshairs– directly in front of us in the main lobby. Seeing him so immediately was so startling that I nearly toppled back.
He couldn’t have been more than twenty feet away. Broom in hand, he swept towards a pile of dust and debris in the middle of the hall. His head was down. Whenever he turned enough to one side I could see his expression was serious. Like something was on his mind that wasn’t cleaning up.
Diego pointed to the near wall. Leaning against it were a couple of church posters, a mop he’d probably use after sweeping, and the two collections baskets he’d been tasked with safekeeping. Both of them overflowed with the bills of the well-intentioned Catholics.
Lee swept a bit more into his main pile, scooped it up, and dropped into a garbage can next to his loot. He leaned the broom against the wall and wiped his forehead with his arm and turned back towards us.
We were one step ahead of him. We both dropped well before he could have seen. All he saw through those windows was the same old picnic area with the old cemetery behind it. I prayed Diego’s truck was as out of sight as we’d imagined.
After a few moments of silence, we gripped our crowbars tightly and slowly brought our eyes to the window line again. Diego’s fingers shook and slipped on the edges of the pane. Had Lee still been looking we would have had no choice but to rush him and create more commotion than we wanted.
A very different looking Lee was now standing in the foyer. One like we’d never seen before. He looked towards the classroom farther down. He had his hands clasped together, his thumbs circling the insides of his palms.
He slunk along the wall towards the door, tip-toeing as if afraid to disturb anything in the empty space around him. He made his way to the door of the Sunday School classroom and gingerly brought his head to the window to peer inside.
He spied on them, while we spied on him.
He stayed there for a while, lifting one heel off the ground and then the other. Then someone must have seen him. He quickly jerked his head away and then crept back to the spot where he’d just been cleaning.
Both Diego and I ducked again and looked at each other while under the window.
“Think he saw us?” I said.
“He didn’t see shit.”
“Enough proof for you now? Peepin’ Tom just got caught lookin’ at the Sunday School girls.”
He glared at me. I could see his long-held frustration starting to boil over. I looked at the crowbar in my hands. I tried to imagine what it would be like to crack it down over that motherfucker’s head.
It didn’t feel wrong. Not in the slightest way.
Diego was the first to make a move. He stood up and delicately pulled one of the doors open. I got ready to lunge up when it squeaked but saw no reaction from Diego. When I got up I saw that Lee had vacated the foyer and moved into the kitchen the next room over. The doors flapping closed behind him.
The mop and broom were left leaning against the wall. The collection baskets: gone.
I tried to tug at Diego’s shirt, but he pulled away too quickly and tip-toed as quickly as he could towards the kitchen. The bolt cutters stuffed around the back of his pants nearly fell to the floor. I had to jog to catch up.
Lee was still totally unaware after we slid through the kitchen doors and crept up behind him. He stood in front of the sink, splashing waves of running water up at his face. The collection boxes had been set neatly on one of the tables behind him.
Had he been caught sneaking by Father Carmazzi, or even by his dad? Had he tarnished his precious Beacon family name? Soon, he would tell us. That was if Diego didn’t kill him first.
Lee’s head perked up like an animal aware of its predator at the very last second. He made a half-turn before Diego brought the crowbar down and landed in the area between his neck and his shoulder.
I pulled the sack out from under my shirt and dove to force it over his head as quickly as I could. Diego got a few punches in as I leaned over him, making my voice sound as rough and distorted as I possibly could. I leaned down close to his head and spoke as quietly as I could.
“Not a sound. You make one scream for help and if ends for you here. Do you understand?”
Lee’s head nodded from under the sack. His nails scraped along the tile floor like he was trying to find some traction. Diego brought his crowbar down on his right and I swore I could have heard the sound of bone cracking.
We pulled him to the farthest corner of the room and out of sight from the doors. He punched wildly into empty air as while sat him up in one of the wooden kitchen chairs.
He must have known. Who else would have done this to him other than the two criminal delinquents who’d tried to force information out of him only a couple weeks before?
Diego hit him a few times in the midsection with his crowbar. He recoiled taking the blows and screamed into the sack one the last one before I punched him in the gut as hard as I could.
The tiniest, most pain-filled exhale escaped from under the sack.
Diego took the bolt cutters out that he had around the back of his waist. He looked at me and nodded– and I knew there was no amount of bullshit deep-throated rationalization that would convince out of what he was about to do.
He put the blades on either side Lee’s pinky finger. I went around behind him and put one arm over his mouth and the other over his chest to keep him from squirming.
I felt his mouth open wide into my hand. The sound barely went more than a couple feet. The crotch of his pants got all wet and he struggled with whatever strength he had left inside his body.
It was a smooth motion– easier than I thought it would be. Diego pressed the handles together with all his strength and Lee’s finger cracked and bent until it was severed and laying on the floor twitching in its own pool of blood.
He thrashed harder than before. He kicked and tilted to either side so much that he pulled both of us over.
On the ground, Diego punched over and over in the chest and in the head. Lee kept fighting until he was too damaged to continue. His kicks and screams became weaker. The blood still poured all over the floor and soaked the legs of our pants.
It was over. Whatever wrong that Lee Beacon had done, an evil justice had been served.
I pulled myself to my feet. My arm hurt so badly from the fall. I staggered by Diego, who looked like he was ready to jump back in and strike him again.
Blood had gotten on the inside of my pants and up my leg. My first instinct was to pull my mask off and wipe it. If only it would have proven my biggest mistake that day.
Somewhere in the pain and the adrenaline, a realization struck me. We weren’t the only ones in the building. The Sunday School group, Father Carmazzi, and even Lee’s dad and some other volunteers were still in the building somewhere.
I stumbled back out into the hall and looked back to the right and out the back doors. Nothing out there had changed. I could even see bits of the silver paint from Diego’s truck if I looked hard enough through the shrubs.
I turned back to my left, fully intending to collect Diego and starting our mad dash out the building. I stopped dead halfway around.
Sarah Beacon stood outside the classroom door. She had one hand on the handle, the other clutching the skirt portion of purple-flowered Sunday dress. Two thick streams of tears rolled down her face. Her watery eyes sparkled under the florescent lights above.
She’d seen us. She’d seen what he did to her older brother. I could tell from the look she gave me. She’d witnessed something far more terrible than any young girl should ever be exposed to.
She was trying her best to hold it back. But she was on the verge of breaking and crying out for everyone to hear.
What would Diego do if he saw her? Surely he wouldn’t be so keen to let her go– not now that she’d seen my face. He would intervene. He would hurt her, take her captive. Even worse, depending on how much adrenaline he still had coursing through his veins, he might even kill her.
I gestured her towards the classroom door and started to pull the mask back over my face. I smiled at her, thinking the day would come where she would point to me as the guilty party from a courtroom stand in front of my family and half the town.
I was alright with that. I had already done all the damage I was going to do that day. It was better me than her.
She winced and turned the door handle. The door slammed shut behind her and echoed through the hall.
I went back inside and grabbed Diego by the shoulder and the both of us ran as hard as we could all the way back out the truck. We were out on County Line 17 and back at Diego’s place in half-an-hour, watching the Cowboys game without anyone (except for Sarah) ever knowing.
Pebbles cracked and split out from underneath my tires. The truck bobbed up and down when I pulled off the road and into the little flat behind the bushes– now eighteen years overgrown. They stretched nearly as tall as some of the old trees behind the graveyard and completely blocked my sightline of the church.
I parked in nearly the exact that Diego and I had all those years ago. I had the day of my return penciled on my calendar for longer than I could remember. I was as ready as I was ever going to be.
Lee Beacon died from this his injuries the day we beat him and cut off his little finger. There is no escaping the fact that never a single day will pass where he doesn’t pass through my mind at some point in time. Sometimes I see his face flushed red with mixed alcoholic beverage running down the corners of his mouth. Sometimes I see his nervous face while he peered in through the window of the Sunday School classroom.
Sometimes I simply picture what his face must have looked like under that sack after we’d struck him over and over.
I opened the door and stepped onto the dirt and scattered patches of grass. I wondered how long it had been since someone had stood in that spot. Perhaps it was the police who scoured the area after being called on scene. They never traced any tire marks in the dirt back to Diego’s truck even though they arrived at the church approximately thirty-five minutes after we’d left.
Neither Diego nor I served a single day in jail for our heinous crime. We never even dealt with the slightest bit of suspicion nor were on the radar in any capacity.
This was due, in large part, to the fact that Lee was not the only murder victim found inside St. Augustine’s Church that day. He was only one small puzzle piece to an even greater and perplexing atrocity that occurred within the holy confines of that building.
The whole thing was so big, so shattering that any trace of us would have only become an irrelevant detail in the grand scheme.
The South Texas heat was hard to readjust to. The air was sticky and I was already sweating by the time I reached the old graveyard and walked in between the tombs not up kept and now nearly twenty years further aged.
I stopped in front of the Beacon’s graves. They were the last two to be buried in the yard. Lee was twenty and Sarah, only eleven. They were too young to be taken from the world. Both of their blood forever stained upon my hands.
A surge of sadness engulfed me. I had to turn away. I put my hands on my knees, trying to suck in long gasps of air to slow my heart rate.
I looked towards the church. Its formerly yellow bricks were chipped and browned. The windows were mostly boarded over except for a few spots where the slats had been peeled off or cracked. The back door, the same one we peered inside to see Lee spy inside the classroom, had been replaced by two large steel ones, forever chained and bolted shut.
Perhaps if we’d gone to prison, then I’d have the chance to make peace with myself. At least I’d be able to accept the fact that I made the conscious decision to beat Lee to death and deserved to spend the rest of my life in jail, if not in the electric chair.
I had a chance to save a life immediately after taking one that day. If I’d done something when I saw Sarah Beacon outside in the main foyer with my mask off and tears spilling down her face, she might be still alive.
Of course, at the time, I did think I had saved her by ushering her inside the classroom before Diego could discover that she’d seen my face.
Those tears in her eyes were not brought on by witnessing what we did to her bother in the kitchen. She may not even have even seen us at all.
She cried because of the fate she knew awaited inside that classroom. In there, she fell at the hands of truly evil men wearing more devilish masks than Diego and myself.
The police arrived on scene not because someone had discovered Lee’s body and called them. They arrived after a tentative call had been made before we’d even pulled the truck into the spot behind the bushes. It was a seemingly harmless call about the idea of some potential wrongdoing inside the classroom made by none other than Lee Beacon before we got to him.
Lee wasn’t guilty of what we thought he was. Quite the opposite was true. Lee was the one person who knew about what was really happening behind closed doors to the little girls and boys and Sunday School. He wasn’t staying late to pocket donation money and make his rounds with girls underage. He was staying late trying to stop something terrible from happening from the same men who’d manipulated him his entire life.
It’s only coincidence it all happened the same day that we came for him.
All twelve children’s bodies were found strewn over the carpet on the classroom floor. Their little limbs lay at their sides or flopped over the little plastics chairs.
All of them showed signs of some form of physical abuse (noticeably worse in some) before ultimately dying from the same poison in their veins. A half-full pitcher of toxic fruit juice was left sitting on the teacher’s desk.
Father Carmazzi and Mr. Beacon, the two most devout members of the church, were discovered on the altar. They were later found to be responsible for what had taken place that day. They were blamed for the children’s murders as well as beating Lee to death. Spilled plastic cups of the same drink were found next to their bodies.
God gave me a chance for redemption that day. I could have saved Sarah’s life… Maybe I could have saved them all. Instead, I was only there for murder and fled like a coward the moment my life was in jeopardy.
There will be no forgiveness for me.