“What’s your name?” I asked from a few pews away, keeping my distance.
He didn’t answer, just continued to bob gently on the noncurrents of nonspace. I drifted closer still.
I said, “My name is…” but I suddenly had to stop and think. Panic surged through me. What the hell was my name? Jim? Jack? No, not quite. James? Yes, James!
“My name is James,” I said.
He watched me some more, then finally spoke, his voice small and hesitant, barely reaching my ears. “I don’t remember my name, mister.”
I nodded. “That’s okay. Sometimes I don’t remember mine, either.”
He next surprised me by confidently and boldly moving toward me, drifting straight through the pews. Perhaps he sensed a friend. As he came toward me, his slightly mussed hair never moved—and would never move again. And neither would mine, no matter how hard the wind might blow.
His cheeks were still chubby, and I saw the ghostly hint of freckles. His eyes were bright. The brutal damage to his head made me want to look away, but I forced myself not to. Now, of course, he did not feel the pain, just as I did not feel the bloody wounds that dotted me from head to toe.
And, perhaps most amazingly, he looked familiar.
“You got all shot up,” said the boy.
“Yes,” I said.
“Were you bad, too?”
“Maybe,” I said. “I don’t remember.”
“I was bad and I had to die.”
Sweet, sweet Jesus.
“Why didn’t you go to heaven?” I asked.
“Daddy says there is no heaven,” he answered.
“And you believe your daddy?” I asked, surprised, since I had found the boy in a church, after all.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
He paused long and hard. “I think so, yes. A brother.”
“Do you have a mommy?” I asked.
And then he did something I was completely unprepared for. He burst into tears and threw his little arms around my waist and hugged me hard, burying his nose in my hip. His deep shudders rippled through me as he cried long and hard.
I put my arm hesitantly around him. “You miss your mommy, don’t you?”
“I want to go home,” he said, his voice muffled. “Please help me go home, mister.”
We sat together in the front pew.
The image of Jesus Christ hovered above us in all its contorted, bloody glory. The boy rested his wounded head on my shoulder. From this angle, I could look down into his broken skull. I averted my eyes.
I wasn’t sure what to say to him or how to console him. I was certain that his lack of belief in the afterlife was keeping him grounded to the church, the place of his death.
So I asked the obvious question: “If you don’t believe in heaven, then why did you go to church?”
He wiped his nose, although there was nothing running from it. Strictly a human habit. “Mommy made us go.”
“Yes, me and my brother.”
“I see. But your dad didn’t believe.”
He screwed up his little face. “I can’t really remember anymore, mister. But that sounds about right.”
“So your teachers taught you one thing, and when you came home, your dad taught you another. And you believed your dad, because he’s your dad.”
The boy nodded eagerly, but I was certain I had lost him, and I was also certain that he had lost the specifics of his own life, just as I was losing the specifics of mine. Luckily, talking often to Pauline—about my life, about my past—helped me remember who I was. I suspected the boy didn’t have the benefit of a powerful medium. The boy, for all intents and purposes, had been completely forgotten.
“Who killed you?” I asked.
“Some boys. Older boys. Big boys.”
“Why did they kill you?” I asked.
The little boy shrugged. “I don’t remember. But I did something bad. They kept telling me I was a bad boy and that I deserved to fall.”
Suddenly, a series of violent, flashing images—all coming from the boy’s own memory—came to me. As they did so, the boy began rocking back and forth on the pew.
Two older boys, both dressed in traditional Catholic uniforms—black slacks, white button-up short-sleeve shirts—were laughing at him. The images were distorted. They appeared in the boy’s thoughts rapidly and probably out of order, as if a film editor had gotten a movie’s sequence all mixed up:
An image of the older boys laughing at him…
Being dragged up a dark flight of steep stairs…
Boys and girls playing on the playground…
Two boys waving him over to a drinking fountain…
Being hauled through a dark doorway…
Hanging over a wooden beam—a rafter…
Looking down to the sanctuary far below…
Children skipping rope outside…
Kicking and screaming, begging for forgiveness…
One of the older boys screaming that something had been stolen. Blaming the little boy…
Children running to a drinking fountain, jostling to be first in line…
The older boys reaching down for the falling boy, horror on their faces…
The altar rapidly approaching below…
And then the boy, confused and terrified, hovering over his own broken, dead body, blood everywhere…
The older boys appearing now at ground level, out of breath, their faces pale with shock and horror…
And then they are running, dashing through the church…
The boy stopped rocking next to me. I looked at him and found him absently probing his crushed skull, slipping his fingers inside the deep gash.
“Jesus was just a man,” said the boy, picking up on my thoughts. “He wasn’t really God. That’s what my daddy says.”
I nodded, and we were quiet some more. The boy’s thoughts were mostly quiet, although occasionally a very old woman would appear in them. I sensed love radiating from her, and so did the boy, but he was confused and did not remember her.
“I’m sorry you died,” I said.
“It’s okay. I mostly don’t remember it. Just when I’m reminded of it.”
“I’m sorry that I reminded you.”
“It’s okay,” he said again. “Sometimes it feels like it happened to someone else, you know? Like I’m remembering a movie or someone else’s memories. Does that ever happen to you?”