An idea destroyed my hometown. It wasn't a natural disaster or an illness or any other rational, terrible-but-reasonable thing. It was an idea, and it started with Netty Carter.
She was my seventh grade science teacher, a woman who had obviously seen her life taking a very different path than the one she'd ended up on. She dressed like a slightly more conservative Marilyn Monroe, wore her bottle blonde hair in short curls, and was forever applying new layers of bubblegum pink lipstick in the middle of her lectures. The boys (and, admittedly, a few of their dads) were quite fond of her.
The girls (and, admittedly, a few of their moms), far less so.
Really, Netty was a harmless thing, even if she probably had no business trying to be a teacher. She certainly didn't deserve what happened to her, or what became of her memory after.
It was a Tuesday morning when our principal came into the room, his face gray and grim, and we immediately went quiet. Every kid knew not to get on Mr. Lawrence's bad side and, that day, it looked like the only side he had.
"Students," he said, addressing us with a piercing gaze, "I'm afraid I have some bad news. Miss Carter passed away unexpectedly last night. We will have a substitute for you soon. Until then, I will be taking over the class."
We all traded surprised, uncertain glances after his announcement. How had she died? She hadn't been that old; probably not even thirty yet. Had she been sick? Although we wanted to know more, no one asked Mr. Lawrence for any more details. He wasn't the kind of person who took kindly to questions.
Big news moves fast in small towns, though, and by lunch, the popular rumor was that Miss Carter hadn't just "passed away"; she'd been murdered. A farmer had found her body in his corn field early that morning. Some people said she was naked, others said she'd still been dressed, still others claimed they'd actually seen the body and she'd been somewhere in between.
Regardless of her state of dress, everyone could suddenly agree on one thing: Antoinette "Netty" Carter had practically been a saint.
"She treated our children so well!" tearful parents cried.
"She never had a bad word to say about anyone!" her shell shocked coworkers said.
"She was a good, God fearing woman!" the pastor of our church proclaimed.
All of the nitpickiness that had followed her in life, the little digs over her flirtatious nature and her too tight dresses, was wiped clean and, overnight, she became the town's most beloved citizen.
I asked my parents about it, wondering why all these people who thought of her as shallow and dim were now praising her as if they'd all personally known and loved her when she was alive.
"It helps people feel better," Mom said. "They may not have liked her, but nobody deserves to go out like that, and this is how they pay their respects."
"Why didn't they respect her when she was alive, then?" I asked. "Wouldn't it have meant more if they were nicer while she was actually around to hear it?"
"That's just how people are, baby."
People, as it turned out, were also paranoid and afraid and dangerous.
After Miss Carter's death, there was a noticeable shift in the town's mood. There hadn't been a murder in the area in almost three decades and it shook everyone more than they cared to admit.
The changes started off slow, just little things like parents keeping a closer eye on their kids when they played outside or not allowing them out after dark. Young women only went out in groups and never strayed far from populated places. The teachers at school stayed outside during recess instead of grading papers in the classroom. Everyone was more vigilant, even if they didn't want to acknowledge it.
Things got worse as the investigation into Miss Carter's murder went on. The cops interviewed the farmer who found her, swept the field where her body had been left, and gathered what little evidence they could, none of which pointed them in any particular direction. They were getting frustrated, the townspeople were getting frustrated, and tempers started to flare.
Missy Tomlinson accused Larry White of following her. Larry said she was being crazy. Susannah Creary claimed that Bud Dwyer had been looking at her funny. Bud said that was just on account of his crossed eyes. Lydia complained about Robbie, Mildred about Beau, down the line, until it seemed just about everyone was accusing everyone of doing something wrong. The police were getting calls and running themselves ragged trying to keep up.
That was when the idea started to take hold.
"I know we need someone to blame," the sheriff said over the radio. "But we can't just keep pointing fingers at each other. We all know each other, this is a good town filled with good people!"
Everyone agreed. It was a good town, we were good people, and we did need someone to blame.
The sheriff didn't know it at the time, but he'd planted a poisonous seed into very fertile ground.
I was sitting at the kitchen table doing homework when a knock came at the front door. It had been a few months since Netty Carter's murder, but I still wasn't allowed to answer the door after dark. Only Dad could do that. I heard him get up from his easy chair and open the door. He talked quietly to someone for a moment and then closed it again.
"Who was that?" Mom asked.
"Mike," he said. "Wants me to go down to the bar."
"It's a weeknight," Mom said disapprovingly. "You have work tomorrow, the kids have school; what is he thinking coming around at this hour?"
"Says they got a fella there who's been acting mighty suspicious."
"Suspicious? What's that supposed to mean?"
"They think he might know something about the Carter woman."
Mom lowered her voice, probably in the hopes that I wouldn't hear, "Then they should call Sheriff Lyons."
"They tried, but he let him go."
"Then they should leave it alone."
"Mike said they got a good hunch that this could be the guy. He's a drifter, but he seemed to know a lot about Netty."
"Well, she was in all the papers!"
"I'm gonna go," Dad said. "I just wanna check it out."
"I won't be long. I just wanna see what the fuss is about."
Before Mom could argue further, I burst into the living room and grabbed my dad by his wrist. "Can I go?" I begged. It sounded so exciting! If the drifter really was the guy who killed Miss Carter, I wanted to see him get arrested!
"I don't think so-" Mom started to say.
"Oh, come on, Rita, if the boy wants to go, let him!"
"It's not a good idea!"
Dad waved her off and motioned for me to follow him. We hopped in the Buick and pulled out of the driveway while Mom glared after us from the front window.
By the time we arrived at the bar, a small crowd had already gathered. They were standing in a semi circle around the front of the building, where a man was cowering with his back to the wall.
"You stick close to me, boy," Dad said warningly and I nodded.
We got out of the car to hear someone shouting, "What did you do to her?"
"I didn't do nothing!" the man yelled back.
Dad shouldered his way to the front of the crowd and I followed dutifully behind, until we were just about face to face with the drifter man. He was dressed in dirty, oversized overalls and had dusty, sunburned skin, the kind you get from living most of your life outside. His watery eyes were darting around and he kept licking his lips anxiously. I almost felt sorry for him, but everyone else seemed angry.
"You think you can come here and kill one of our women?"
"I ain't done that!"
"You were in town then, weren't you?"
"I was out at the Fifers' farm! I was doing planting work for them! Just ask!"
The more he tried to defend himself, the angrier the crowd became. The air was electric, frightening, and I looked to my father for reassurance. He put a hand on my shoulder and stared straight ahead.
"Murderer!" The cry was picked up by most of the crowd.
"You're the only stranger who's been through since then!"
"But I didn't-"
"You saying one of us killed her? One of our own?" someone demanded accusingly from the back.
A beer bottle caught the drifter under his eye and he fell back, clutching at his face.
"He's a liar!"
"He killed Netty!"
I swallowed hard, a queasy feeling starting to turn in my stomach, and Dad tightened his grip on my shoulder.
"You're gonna pay for what you did, boy!" Mr. Thornton, the owner of the local grocery store and a bar regular, sneered at the drifter and gave him a hard kick to his gut. The man doubled over with a pained gasp. "Somebody go into the bed of my truck and get that length of rope I got there!"
"What're they doing to him, Dad?" I whispered nervously as some of the gathered people started to dig around in the messy back end of Mr. Thornton's pick up. A few rocks sailed towards the cowering man and he whimpered with every strike.
Dad squared his shoulders and grit his teeth, but he didn't answer.
He looked down at me, and there was a confusing mix of emotion on his face. He looked angry and sad and unsure all at once and it frightened me.
"They're gonna teach him a lesson, son."
Mr. Thornton and three other men, one with a length of coiled rope slung over his shoulder, started to drag the drifter away from the bar, towards a nearby oak tree. The drifter was shrieking and crying and my skin crawled even as the others started to mock and jeer.
The end of the rope was tossed up and sailed over the lowest branch.
"You still gonna deny it?" Todd Aimes demanded, the grasped in his weathered hands.
"Please, I didn't! I wouldn't!" A damp spot had appeared on the front of the drifter's overalls.
"Who else would it have been? Pretty dumb of you to stick around, thinking we wouldn't figure it out!"
As the rope was knotted into a noose, the drifter's legs gave out and he sagged between the men still holding him. I heard him start to mumble the Lord's Prayer in a quavering voice.
"Jesus isn't gonna help a murderer!"
Another chorus of "Murderer!" ripped through the crowd. I clung to the hem of my father's shirt and half buried my face in his side. Why wasn't Dad doing anything to stop this? Why wasn't anybody? We might have been on the edge of the town, but it was by no means deserted, but no one made a move to help the sobbing drifter.
As the noose was put over his head, Mr. Thornton pushed a beefy finger into his chest. "The sheriff may have let you go, but we know better. Your kind come into our good towns with our good people and you think you can get away with doing whatever you want! Because of you, poor Netty's mother had to bury her only child!"
The man closed his eyes and kept repeating the same phrase over and over again. "It wasn't me, it wasn't me, it wasn't me."
He was still saying it when the men started to pull on the rope, tightening the noose around his neck and lifting him from the ground. His words turned into strained gargles and his whole body jerked and swung as his face purpled beneath its dust and grime. His watery eyes grew wide and fat and I thought they might burst.
While he struggled helplessly, futilely, the crowd of good people from our good town cheered.
When the final spasms subsided, Mr. Thornton cut him down and had the body loaded up into the back of his truck.
"I'll take care of him," he said proudly and grinned as he was thanked.
Dad and I got back into the Buick and drove home in silence. Neither of us ever spoke of that night again. No one in the town did. They wanted to pretend that it hadn't happened, that it had been some other small town filled with other people who had murdered a man just because he was an outsider. I was never able to look at any of them the same way again, especially my father. Our relationship was never the same. Mom just acted like she didn't know what had happened.
I guess it was easier that way.
I was haunted by visions of the drifter's face, his voice, his cries of innocence, for many years. When I was old enough, I left and went as far away as I could, hoping that time and distance would help the memory fade. I was never able to go back.
As a kid, I'd loved the small town life. I knew everyone, I felt safe, it was home. But then Netty Carter was murdered and an idea took over. The idea that we were good people who wouldn't have hurt an innocent person. It had to be them, an other, someone who wasn't us, and we, the good people, wanted revenge.
The love and safety I'd once felt was torn away from me and suddenly I felt like I was the other in this familiar, but terrible and strange place, and it was never home to me again.
An idea destroyed my hometown and, now, only monsters and a murdered man remain.