It all started, the town whispered behind his back, when the sickness took his sons away. Left his wife crippled, turned him into a shell of a man. First he found the bottle, then the draft found him.
Most men left for the War in one piece and came back broken. Arnold Corbin left a broken man and came back as something more. With his bible in one hand and a Purple Heart medal in the other, Reverend Arnie took to the park and began preaching his sermon to anyone and everyone who would listen. After a couple of years, he found a tiny little church in need of a minister. Every Sunday he preached to his flock in a thunderous voice that shook the rafters. His daughter played the organ for hymns that were at first quiet but soon challenged Reverend Arnie in volume.
Soon after Reverend Arnie came back from the war, there was something the townsfolk only referred to as “the incident.” Lily Corbin went out dancing with Billy Weston one night. For a time after, she was terribly pale and withdrawn. Most folks attributed it to the fact that Billy Weston disappeared the next day; skipped off with his last paycheck and her heart to boot.
Lily went “to visit family” which didn’t fool much of anybody, especially when she came back with a red-faced child and dressed in widow-black. The kindly people of Swanton Creek let the Corbins keep their little secret. There was no real harm to it.
In fact, by the time they found Billy Weston’s body, most people didn’t even remember his name. Much less the dubious parentage of one wee bright-faced tot.
(Lily remembered, though. She remembered the screams, the tears, the yelling. The sharp stings, the tearing, the scraping. She couldn’t close her eyes without remembering.)
The town grew in size, and oddly enough, the population of birds boomed as well. They all seemed to be attracted to the newly-erected telephone wires. The popular theory was that the birds were listening to the town’s newest media for gossip. It was one of those superstitions that happens too often to be discounted. As soon as some secret was whispered across the wires, it would spread like wildfire through the town. Far too often, Reverend Arnie would gently pull the person into his church for a confidential talk.
While the town’s sudden boom in growth wasn’t directly attributed to Reverend Arnie, the town whispered. He’s a good luck charm. We need a man like him around to keep us honest. The holy man became something the sleepy town of Swanton Creek could be proud of.
Pride can be a crutch. The town depended on Reverend Arnie to keep them honest, but who kept watch over Reverend Arnie? It was a question most people didn’t think to ask. Slowly, the church confessionals became more common. People were being taken to task for the mildest of sins.
Sins they hadn’t even committed yet. Sins they’d only talked about. Then, sins they’d only thought about.
“How does Reverend Arnie know?” The townspeople asked Lily, who would shoot a nervous glance at the sky, then smile and shrug.
“I don’t know,” she said. Over and over again. Until that wasn’t enough of an answer. The people grew aggressive. Started shoving at her, demanding an answer that she couldn’t give. Until the final, horrible culmination that left her broken and bleeding in the streets.
Wee William Corbin saw the whole thing, perched behind a trash can. The crowd dispersed, faces hidden by the cover of a moonless sky. A murder of crows took to the air as they passed, though they left one single body behind.
William met the cold black eyes and knew in the most primeval part of his mind that his grandfather already knew about the terrible deed and would see to it that everyone paid dearly for their crimes.
The next day, Reverend Arnie stepped down from his podium and bid his congregation to follow him to the corner where he had first begun to preach.
“Come forth,” he shouted from the pulpit of the streets. “Come forth, my people.” They gathered around, people and birds alike, until nearly the whole town stood before him. “Know that there is evil among you. A serious injustice has been committed. I ask you now to answer for your crime!”
There was a moment’s pause, then the grocer pointed at the milkman. “He’s been charging you extra and pocketing the profit!” Angry mutters rumbled from the crowd while the birds fluttered and shifted.
“She’s been taking kisses from the boys under the stairwell!”
“He puts his thumb on the scale!”
“She favors my sister more than she does me!”
The yelling grew louder until there was no individual complaint, merely a sea of fear and anger. Just like they did with Lily Corbin, shouts grew to shoves which turned to blows. Blood ran thick through the streets, and above it all stood Reverend Arnie and his flock.