By: A.P. Miller
People just don’t party in the woods like they used to. Sydney George could remember a time in her life when she and her friends would take sleeping bags, a few cases of beer, and enough something to burn to keep the party going until the sun started coming up. Then life happened. People got older, they had kids, bought houses, and had responsibility. Despite every promise they had made to each other when they were graduating, Syndey’s close circle of friends just didn’t keep in contact the way they were supposed to.
When it came time to plan an informal fifteenth reunion with her closest friends, it only made perfect sense to get together at the quarry, burn a bunch of scrap wood, and throw down like they did when they were younger.
The planning and execution was perfect – the core group of friends had RSVP’ed: Belinda Bell (who answers to Belinda Norris ever since she married that dentist), Nick Gold, Kelly Denton (who used to be Kelly Case, but her mother’s’ marriage and the resulting adoption kind of complicated a few things – the battle with the social security office over the name change was a level of tedium never to be replicated) and Vance Michaels. Sydney had exhausted herself the week before making everything perfect; she had bought a handle of everyone’s favorite booze, making playlists of their favorite songs the year they had last seen each other, the works.
As the sun was setting late into the October evening and headlights were cutting through the abyss of a moonless night, the magic hour had arrived. Time had been kind to social circle, for the most part. Belinda had put on some weight, but she always had a reputation of being too skinny anyways. Vance shaved his head, not because of baldness, but because of the chunk of the scalp that couldn’t grow hair from the car accident that he had a few years ago; Kelly and Nick hadn’t changed a bit, except for some deeper valleys in their skin and some rogue grey hairs.
What made the evening even better was when word had gotten out about the get together, and even more people that they had loosely associated with had arrived. The miracle of the cellular telephone, right? The people who showed up contributed to the cache of liquid entertainment. They sang songs, they toasted life, and they even had a good cry together. The people that were bringing down the vibe were escorted elsewhere (unless they had been drinking; then they were told to walk, their keys would be returned to them in the morning). The evening burned on, the pile of firewood was about halfway gone, and those who couldn’t hang had found sober rides home.
It was moments like this when Sydney’s social circle had formed; people who could manage their alcohol, that were chilled out, and always a good time. Syd couldn’t count how many deep conversations that they had around fires just like this one – talking about what life would be like, what they would be doing, and how they were going to make their way in the world. It was moments like this when Vance had kissed Sydney and they’d found out there was no chemistry between them; like when Nick and Holly Ross had broken up and he leaned on his friends to find something to be happy about.
On this night, fifteen years removed from their last hurrah, they were the lone survivors of a great night like they’d had before.
“I’ve got a great idea!” Belinda piped up. “Do any of you remember Jessie Martin’s thirteenth birthday party?”
“I didn’t get there until after Gracie Vine pissed herself and went home crying.” Kelly replied.
“Vaguely. I wasn’t invited.” Sydney admitted, “Someone started a rumor I’d stolen someone’s boyfriend and I was one of the only girls in seventh grade that wasn’t invited.”
“That must have sucked. How did you spend that night?” Vance asked.
“With her boyfriend.” Syd smiled.
Nick started a toast to Sydney, which ended up being more of a drunken roar with a cup full of booze.
“What’s your great idea, Belinda?” Kelly continued.
“It’s a stupid party game, but that’s the whole point of tonight, isn’t it? To let loose like we’re young again?” Belinda shrugged.
“What game is it?” Syd asked.
“It’s called ‘Unholy Confession.’” Belinda replied after taking a sip from her red plastic cup. “We do some stupid ritual and then we will be compelled by the spirits to spill dark secrets – in fact, we won’t be able to lie or else ghosts will drag our souls to hell!”
Belinda wiggled her fingers and playfully moaned like a ghost.
“Hell,” Nick took the last swig out of his cup, “I’m game.”
Syndey and Kelly agreed. Vance was kind of apprehensive at first, but eventually relented. Belinda pleaded with him, that sharing secrets with people that could come together so close after being so far away would only mean that they would stay close. There had been some talk that Vance had found religion a while ago and anything to do with ghosts or the dead made him very uncomfortable, but Belinda made a point.
“How do we start?” Kelly asked.
“We start by plucking out a hair, and putting it into a cup. Then we spit in it, and prick our fingers and put a drop of blood in. After we’ve all done it, we throw the cup in the fire and then we are at the mercy of the spirits.” Belinda cheerfully collected a cup and plucked out one of her own hairs.
Odd glances were exchanged, but eventually everyone did likewise. It was just a stupid ritual after all – Kelly kind of remembered Jessie’s party, it could have been anything, like taking a piss on a rock or putting lipstick on a doll. It was all about the presentation and playing along. Spitting into the cup was weird, and the pricking of fingers was made a little worse by how thin everyone’s blood had been from drinking.
“Blessed be!” Belinda laughed and threw the cup into the fire. The plastic smelled awful as it contorted under the heat of the flames, but it didn’t last long. “Who wants to go first?”
“I will.” Sydney offered, strange because she had never been the social one out of any of them. “My unholy confession is that I have been living with a man that has been stealing money from his work – I mean a lot of money. He’s slowly laundering the money and hiding it in my name so that even if he does get caught, no one can find the money or ever trace it back to me.”
“Wow.” The look on Vance’s face was surprise, not horror.
“Yeah.” Sydney nodded, she felt like her head was swimming, “Before I came here tonight, I dropped the dime on him to the authorities. As of right now, he’s probably sitting in a holding cell and our apartment had been ransacked. All the evidence of where the money is lies in boxes in my trunk. Once he’s convicted, I’m loaded.”
“Holy cow.” Nick slurred.
“I’ll go next.” Kelly offered. Sydney had begun to cry and Vance put an arm around her shoulder to comfort her, “My unholy confession is that I know who beat up Regina Quinn when we were in tenth grade; you know, when she got put into the wheelchair?”
“Who was it?” Nick was almost giddy at the prospect of solving a mystery that had haunted them for almost twenty years.
“It was Janice Spellman and me.” Kelly exhaled, “Regina and I went to the same church and all; she had told my parents that she had seen me smoking at the football game and – well, my dad was kind of rough when he disciplined my sisters and I. I had horrible bruises for weeks and I blamed the abuse on Regina. Janice and I followed her home after the homecoming parade that year and you know how she lived down that dark road, right? That’s when we took our shot. The more she cried, the more I remembered how I cried, and it only made it worse for her. After she’d blacked out, I kept hitting her. I picked up a cinder block and dropped it on her. That’s why she’s in the wheelchair.”
The silence was palpable – it was almost like someone else was sitting around the fire with them. The air became colder and Kelly shivered; the hot tears running down her cheeks almost made steam rise.
“My turn.” Vance finally spoke, “My unholy confession is that I’m not as religious as I want people to think that I am. See, I was married and Glenda had a degenerative brain disorder. It started with losing her motor functions and I had to care for her, constantly. After that, she’d lost who she was, didn’t recognize me, and I had to put her in a care facility. I’d visit her every day and she wasn’t getting any better – then the bills started piling up. I’d sit in her room and cry and cry, and Glenda had no idea who I was or what I was doing; she was more of a child than my wife. One night, one of her nurses decides that she’s going to pick my spirits up. We go out for a drink and she starts flirting with me and we go back to her place. For the first time in forever, I feel like I have life left to live and that I’m still young enough to go after it! One day, after the doctor tells me that Glenda is physically a vegetable, but she still has brain activity, the nurse tells me how I can finally let Glenda go and we can both move on. As Glenda was gasping her last breaths, she’s looking at me with clarity I hadn’t seen in a long time. She’d known what I’d done and knew that I hurt her. I watched her die for over an hour – I’ve been going to church ever since to try to get rid of the guilt.”
“Oh, that’s nothing, Vance!” Nick slaps Vance on the back, “You all know those girls that went missing a few years ago? It was me. I killed them.”
Jaws dropped, expressions contorted in horror. Nick was oblivious and still had his drunken smile, swaying with the wind.
“Nick?” Vance asked, “Really?”
“Oh, yeah.” Nick nodded, “The first one, that was really something. Ever since I was little, there was this little creature that would follow me around and tell me to do things. When Mrs. Flower’s barn burned down, that was me. When Mr. Parson’s dog got into all that rat poison, the creature told me to do it. In high school, the creature told me that I had to take the skin from Holly Ross’s face – if she hadn’t broken up with me that night, I would have done it. I wasn’t sad because I missed her; I was crying because the creature was going to torture me that night. The first girl I had met when I was delivering pizzas; the creature told me that I had to eat her appendix. God, I’ll never forget that taste. The other ones just became easier – following orders, you know?”
Vance turned his head and actually threw up – the alcohol that was in his stomach at that exact moment of disgust was like gasoline on the dying fire that they sat around.
“Nick, why would you tell all of us that?” Kelly asked, “You’ve just confessed to murder!”
“…I don’t know.” Nick’s thoughts were starting to sober up, “Why did you come clean about Regina?”
Kelly’s expression blanked, almost like she didn’t know that she had made the confession. Her hands clasped over her mouth when she had finally accepted the truth that she had liberated.
“Vance?” Sydney turned to him as he was wiping his mouth off with the back of his sleeve, “Did you know that you came clean about killing your wife?”
“What?” Vance snapped to alarm, “What did you just say?”
“Oh, Vance!” Sydney gasped.
“What about you, Syd? Did you mean to spill the beans about ratting on your boyfriend?”
“I didn’t! Did I?”
Vance nodded and then grabbed the side of his head; his clenched eyes telegraphed that a really bad headache had onset.
“I guess it’s time for my unholy confession.” Belinda nonchalantly took a sip of her cocktail, “There was never a game called unholy confession, I invented it. A while ago, I got tired of being powerless, of relying on other people to tell me when I was good enough for them. I had found out that I had the power to change that, I always had. It was at that moment that I had found the Temple – what wonders they had shown me were possible. After tonight, I’m going to become a leader at the temple, I just had to find the right sacrifice.”
“…sacrifice?” Sydney asked, still reeling from the emotional trauma that her friends had inflicted on themselves.
“Sure, a sacrifice.” Belinda nodded, “The Temple is a beautiful place that is home to the purest of human experience. In order to ascend the ranks, you must offer impurity to be destroyed. My next promotion requires four sacrifices; perfect timing and a little magic and the sacrifices came to me.”
Vance’s attention was called away by rustling in the woods behind them. He hadn’t noticed that the sun was coming up; large, cloaked figures were approaching the fire, the dawn rising behind them.
Nick had fallen over and Vance was struggling to get to his feet – the hangover was hitting them earlier than it had when they were younger. Kelly and Sydney held hands, seeing even more figures emerge from the waning darkness.
“Look at it this way,” Belinda spoke, “Nick isn’t going to ruin anymore families by listening to his creature, is he?”
* * *
Belinda Norris-Bell was convicted of twelve counts of first degree murder earlier this year – one of the members of the “Adversaries Temple” cult had been indicted and turned evidence on other members as part of a plea deal. During the interrogation, and again during trial, it was found that the leader of the Adversaries Temple, a man referred to as “The Most Exalted Prophet,” was seeking out and manipulating people thought to be weak minded. The victims of the sacrificial murders were not lead to the altar until the Prophet cleaned out their bank accounts through their mobile phones. While his follows were seeking redemption, he was worshiping the almighty dollar.
When asked why she had chosen her close friends, Belinda told investigators it was because they had proven themselves to be terrible people and even worse friends. In the sole display of emotion from Belinda, she had recounted that Sydney George had stolen her boyfriend when she was thirteen and couldn’t even remember the betrayal on the night that Syndey was abducted. After a few tears, Belinda became like a stone wall. Even when Belinda’s husband, Dr. Benton Bell, served her with divorce papers, Belinda was like a rock.
Belinda Norris-Bell has been sentenced to life without the possibility for parole. The Prophet of the Adversaries Temple remains at large.
© 2018 – A.P. Miller