"You scared, Jimmy? It's okay. If you're scared, say you're scared."
"I ain't scared."
Point of fact is that I was scared. Still am, really, and probably even more so. Though I never told my parents what I did while they were alive, they most certainly know now. I've done a lot of wicked and cruel things in my life, but what I did that day is the only thing that is... unforgivable.
Mrs. Taylor kept to herself. She was not an old woman. Early 50s at the time it happened, she might have looked 60 or so, but that's what happens when life gets too stressful or, in her case, too depressing. Of course, I didn't know that then. All I knew about her was that she had money and how her smile looked when she bothered to say hello as people walked by on the street. Other than that, she didn't interact very often with anybody. My mother was the only person who - to my knowledge - had ever been in her house. Mrs. Taylor hadn't even owned a car, preferring to ride a bicycle to wherever she needed to go.
All the really young kids thought that she might be a witch. Those slightly older imagined her as a cannibal, preying on unsuspecting children, despite the complete lack of kidnappings and disappearances in our neighborhood. By the time one reached high school, she ceased to be much of a curiosity to anybody. But I hadn't been in high school yet.
Whenever she rode by, everyone took notice of a floppy red hat that either stuck out of her oversized purse or was otherwise attached to her clothing. Perhaps tucked away under a belt or shoved into a pocket. No matter what she wore or what she was doing, she had that floppy red hat with her. But never, and I am not exaggerating, did she ever have it on her head. She never wore it. She simply kept it with her.
I, and my friends, were at the age when the witch stories were fading and the cannibal stories were brightening. You could say that, at the time, we viewed her as a spell-casting eater of human flesh.
"Well, are you going to do it?" John was, by and large, the leader of our little group. It wasn't because he was the biggest - which he was - but that he had the strange ability to manipulate everyone around him. Well, everyone his age, anyway.
"Yeah, I'm going to do it." I knew then that I shouldn't, but peer pressure is ridiculously powerful at that age, especially when Sally Foster happened to be there staring at me. Maybe I should mention that Sally Foster became my first wife, but then again, that might just make this story worse.
"I hear she sleeps with it." Billy always had a propensity to exaggerate - still does - and even then I assumed that he was just embellishing the tale. In retrospect, however, I now vaguely recall my mother talking to my father about the hat one night, and she had mentioned that Mrs. Taylor had indeed slept with it. Heck, now that I think about it, I think my mother might have known why Mrs. Taylor carried it around. Should have asked her. Hindsight, you know?
But the truth was she didn't sleep with it. Not on the bed, anyway. When I had broken into the house and sneaked up to the second floor, I spotted that floppy red hat on her nightstand, placed carefully next to a black and white photo of an older man - her husband - and a color photo of a younger - her son. At the time, I thought nothing of it; merely relished in the fact that I could walk so silently. I remember that the clock on her other nightstand read 3:13 AM. I remember the slight red hue to the room from both the clock and a decorative nightlight on the other wall. I remember everything about it.
And, yes, I took the hat.
Before I could tell everyone the next day that I retrieved it, Mrs. Taylor was at my front door, frantically explaining something to my mother. I knew immediately that whatever was going on was about the hat. And I knew, probably even prior to that, that I was in a world of trouble. So I did the sensible thing that all sensible children do: I hid the hat and kept my mouth shut.
Mrs. Taylor killed herself three days later.
Years later, when I returned from a tour of duty overseas, I found the red hat still tucked away in my closet. It wasn't red at all, but maroon. Made of wool; a leather sweatband; a drawstring cut and burned, obviously sized for a specific head. A beret. When I first joined the Army, I wore a black one. Maroon was reserved for the Airborne. Those crazy bastards who somehow thought jumping out of airplanes was the best way to attack an enemy. I didn't know any of this when I took... no, when I stole the hat.
It was upon my decision to research how Mrs. Taylor acquired the beret that I finally learned the truth.
Local Hero Buried With Full Military Honors
By Stephanie Jenkins
Wilmington, NC (AP) - Kyle Taylor, graduate of New Hanover High School, was buried amid a 21-gun salute and a military funeral detail on Saturday. A paratrooper of the vaunted 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg and a two-time recipient of the Silver Star, Taylor was killed during an unspecified operation last Monday. Known locally for wearing the maroon beret of his father, Kevin Taylor, who was killed in action 17 years ago this July. Kyle's squad leader personally ensured that the beret made its way safely to Kyle's sole-surviving relative, his mother Genevieve.
I was arrested for digging up her grave in an ill-advised attempt to place the beret in her casket. Mrs. Taylor's sister, then herself on her deathbed, gave permission to exhume the grave in order for the beret to be reunited with its rightful owner.
Though all chargers were dropped - thanks to the sister - and my chain of command declined to pursue a military investigation, I know I await final judgment. St. Michael, the patron saint of warriors and paratroopers, cannot possibly bless a man who has desecrated the memory of two of his chosen. Still, needing to face - and, maybe, hasten - my punishment, I am now a paratrooper, at the whim of the wings and the sword of an angel so powerful. I'm not sure I've slept a full night in years.
May Mrs. Taylor forgive me. Even if St. Michael never does.