by Tarquin Ford
My name is Luke Elliott, I’m fifteen years old, and this is the story of how I received gifts from my spiritual father, Isaac Kane. Even though he hanged himself in jail before I could meet him and he never knew he gave me gifts, I still obtained some and am grateful.
The gifts came to me last week when I went on a camping trip with Rev. Tim Zorn, the youth minister of my foster parents’ church. Four other kids went along: Tony Smith, a pest who asked too many questions; Dieter Dietz, barely bright enough to put on his own socks; and the snickering Collins twins, Mark and Matthew. All of these kids had given me trouble at school or on the bus home, so I was not happy to be traveling with them.
I didn’t ask to go on this trip. Last Sunday in the church parking lot I saw my foster father talking to a small man with close-cropped blond hair. After he finished speaking with my foster father, the small man came over to me and introduced himself as Rev. Zorn. Then he looked up into my eyes and said, “God wants you to go on the youth camping trip to Butcher Creek Park with us this weekend.” In other words, everything had been decided on high, and there was no appeal.
I’d heard of Butcher Creek Park before from a true-crime website. The police captured the serial killer Isaac Kane on the highway by that park. I saw the map on the website. Butcher Creek Park was an irregular blotch surrounded by highways that didn’t run by many towns.
Saturday morning, we all met at the church and piled our backpacks, some folding shovels for latrine duty, and a new tent, still in the box, into the church van. Rev. Zorn drove us down Interstate 81, a long and boring drive. He told us to start singing hymns, beginning with “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Jesus Loves Me.” We took a break after “Nearer My God to Thee.” Then Tony Smith asked me, “What happened to your real parents?” I love this question, and I hate people like Tony who ask it to make me uncomfortable, especially since he’d asked it before and already knew part of the answer.
“When I was a little kid,” I said, “I played with matches. One time something caught on fire, a curtain, a chair, whatever. I knew I was in trouble, so I left home and hid at a friend’s house down the street. Our house burned down with my family inside. I don’t remember any of them.”
Rev. Zorn and the kids were very quiet after I answered that question. I usually don’t tell the story that way. Instead, I simply say my parents and siblings died in a fire. I rarely admit that I set it.
Rev. Zorn turned off Interstate 81 onto an equally boring, straight road. We could see grass and trees out the window, but no tilled fields. Houses were scarce and businesses all but absent. Disturbed by the desolate surroundings, Zorn repeatedly checked his GPS and finally stopped at a convenience store for gas and to make sure of his directions. He took us all inside the store to use the bathroom.
In the restroom I stood beside Dieter at the urinals. Dieter looked over at me and said, “I know why you couldn’t put out the fire. Your hose is too short.” The others laughed. I looked Dieter in the eye and said, “I’m going to kill you.”
When I came out of the bathroom, I heard Zorn asking for directions to Butcher Creek Park. The clerk said, “You looking to show the kids where the serial killer buried the kill kits?”
“No, we’re just going camping. How far is the park?”
“Not near here. Keep following this road up into the hills.”
The clerk saw us standing behind Zorn and said, “Don’t worry about the serial killer, kids. Isaac Kane hanged himself in the county jail last week. There’s nothing out there now except a few bears.” He chuckled, and Zorn said, “Praise the Lord.”
When the road entered the hills, it began to wind and bend. Pine woods grew on both sides, and the Collins twins said they were going to watch for bears. They whispered something about watching for fires as well. They giggled. At least it kept them busy and quiet.
Once inside the park, we were disappointed by how poorly maintained it was. The van bounced when we drove through deep potholes. We passed sports fields with gullies cut into them by heavy rains and picnic areas with broken benches. The restroom building by the picnic areas was locked and the walls were covered with graffiti. Zorn said something about budget cuts and continued driving to the end of the road. When the road stopped, we found a rough trail heading up into the hills. We unloaded our gear and hiked after Zorn. Since I was the largest, I carried the tent. It was a big tent that slept six. It felt heavier every step uphill.
We reached a ridge with trees and underbrush thick on both sides. Zorn led us up the ridge, and I struggled to climb after him, loaded down as I was with the tent. He took out his cellphone and checked the reception. “No bars,” he said. “We’re away from the evils of civilization and in the Lord’s pure wilderness.”
When we had hiked far up on the ridge, Rev. Zorn told us to stop. We could see plenty of blue sky, but nothing else except trees and brush. From what I remembered about the map on the true-crime site, I guessed we were not too far from the highway where the police pulled over Kane.
Zorn said, “We’re going to set up now. I’m going to split you up into pairs of buddies. The Collins twins are one pair. Tony Smith, you buddy up with Dieter. Stay with your buddy at all times. You four go look for firewood and kindling.” I guess he didn’t trust me around kindling.
“Luke,” Zorn said, “You’re my buddy. Stick with me and help me put up the tent.” I wondered how much he knew about me, how much my foster father had told him.
Putting up a tent that sleeps six is hard work. I was glad I wasn’t helping carry it anymore, but that was about it. The part I really hated was the way Zorn told me about every step of the task in detail before we did it: “First, we spread out the ground sheet, then we stake it down with a stake at each corner,” and so forth. The details were more than I could remember, and apparently more than he could either, because he kept having to add steps and then take things apart that we’d put together incorrectly.
When the tent started to look like a crooked hammock, I knew Zorn was improvising the assembly. “You don’t know how to put this tent together do you,” I said.
“The Lord will guide me.” The man was waiting for Jesus to put the tent together for us.
The Collins twins came back with plenty of wood. They both brought hickory branches that would burn well. The wood was too big, however, for kindling; Zorn sent them back to gather twigs. When Dieter and Tony, the other pair, came back with some proper kindling, he sent them to help the Collins twins. I wished he’d put them to work helping us erect the tent. I finally found the assembly instructions for the tent folded up in a flap, so we now knew what we were doing. I could use some help with the tent. Jesus wasn’t giving much to Zorn.
Dieter came back in a few minutes, saying, “The funniest thing happened. We were gathering twigs when we found a big orange plastic bucket buried in the ground.”
Zorn said, “It’s a kill kit!” and scampered away. I followed. When we got to the bucket, the Collins twins were prying off the lid. It came off with a pop, and we all looked inside at the contents. Right on top was a small revolver wrapped in an oiled cloth and plastic. Zorn took command at once.
“What we have here is evil,” he began. “Isaac Kane buried kill kits around the country with supplies in them for future murders. I’m confiscating the gun and any other weapons in this bucket right now.”
To play devil’s advocate, I said, “Shouldn’t we call the police.”
“We will later. The Lord’s work takes precedence over worldly concerns.” I wondered if he wanted the gun because of me.
Zorn took the gun from the bucket and told us to leave the rest of the stuff in it alone. He would inform the police about the bucket when we left the park.
The others rushed after Zorn. I guess they were fascinated with the gun. I was more interested in the other contents of the bucket: a rope, a cloth bag, a bottle of bleach, a can of drain cleaner, a bottle of charcoal lighter fluid, a small folding shovel, plastic sheeting, a shirt, a pair of pants, duct tape, and down in the bottom where Zorn didn’t check was a big folding knife and a cigarette lighter, two of my favorite things. I put them in my pocket and hurried along after Zorn and the rest of the group.
I figured Kane left these buckets buried in parks. When he wanted to make a kill, he pried off the lid, put the stuff in the cloth bag, and walked back to his car.
After we finally put the tent up and Dieter started a fire with kitchen matches that Zorn gave to him one at a time, we cooked beans and franks and ate a miserable meal by firelight. Then Zorn had us sing hymns again. He told us a bedtime Bible story about some guy named Haman who was hanged on gallows he’d prepared for someone else named Mordecai. I like stories about hanging, so I listened carefully. The idea of turning the tables and using execution tools on the people who prepared them appealed to me.
In fact, Zorn’s story had plenty of interest for me. I know he told it just to have a gruesome tale to entertain us. He also wants us to think he doesn’t think about anything but Bible stories. It’s just his way. Nevertheless, I comforted myself with thoughts of old Haman hanging high on the gallows.
That night in my sleeping bag I had some trouble going to sleep. Thoughts of fire and setting fires kept racing through my head. I thought about my family, whoever they were, whatever they were like. I wasn’t even sure I could remember how many brothers and sisters I had. Was it two brothers and a sister? I imagined them hanging in a row on gallows twisting and swinging, the wind whistling by them, like wind chimes.
Tony Smith and Rev. Zorn snored, Dieter talked in his sleep, and the Collins twins giggled and groped each other, but I finally drifted off to sleep. I woke up in the morning before sun up. My sleeping bag was wet. I’d wet myself again.
I was mad and afraid. I didn’t think I could stand to listen to what the Collins twins would say about my wetting the bed, nor did I want to listen to what Rev. Zorn might have to say about bedwetting and the Bible. I sure didn’t want to pray to the Lord for comfort.
I got up very quietly, although there was little danger of waking the sleeping kids who were exhausted by the hike. I was as tired as they were, but I’ve always been able to keep going on nervous energy alone. I’d brought a flashlight, but I let my eyes accustomed themselves to the moonlight to make my leaving less noticeable.
Very quietly, I went back to the orange kill bucket and changed into the pants. They were too long, so I rolled up the cuffs. I took the rope from the bucket and wrapped the end three times around a stone half the size of my fist, made three more turns around the rock after passing the end under the first three, and tied it all up into a big hard knot called a monkey’s fist. Taking the cloth bag from the bucket, I packed everything else in it.
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of a really big fire like a forest fire. I wondered exactly how you could go about setting one. I guessed that without gasoline or some other accelerant you had to start a forest fire one tree at a time. I had some charcoal lighter fluid from the bucket, but I wanted to save it for later.
I looked for a big dry tree. A good fire by the tent would liven things up. As far as I was concerned my wetting the bed had ended my part of the camping trip. I wanted to have some fun, set fire to something, and maybe even kill somebody. I was angry and ashamed because I’d wet the bed. The people I was with didn’t matter to me.
I found a pine tree that had lost a lot of needles. It looked brown in the glow of the flashlight. I carefully gathered twigs and kindling, something I was really good at compared to my tent-erecting skills. I made a fire that caught easily. In a few minutes the flames started going up the side of the tree. It must have been very dry, because the tree went up in a flash.
I found a place to sit where I could see the camp and be well away from the fire. I don’t get burned up in the fires I set if I can help it. I wondered what old Rev. Zorn would do when he saw the burning tree.
After a time, Tony Smith came out of the tent. He shouted, “Look! Look!” like he was too excited or too scared to say the word “fire.” I helped out and bellowed, “Fire! Fire!” Now the Rev. Zorn came out of the tent and looked around him. The man had been sound asleep. He saw the flames and stood there open-mouthed.
I half expected him to start talking about Moses and the burning bush, but no, he started shouting “Fire!” as well. I wanted to goad the man a little, so I echoed him, shouting “Fire!” every time he said it. This was more fun than thrusting a burning stick into an anthill.
Rev. Zorn next pulled his cell phone from the pocket of his cargo jeans. He must have forgotten he had no bars. He started walking around the campsite trying to find a place with good reception. Of course, he found nothing, and he did at last notice I was missing and began to shout my name, “Luke, Luke.” I was having too much fun echoing to let that pass, so I shouted my name back to him every time.
When he realized what I was doing and perhaps recollected what my foster parents said about me, he shouted something different, “The Devil mocks, Luke. The Devil mocks.” I had to shout that back, too.
Zorn then gathered the kids around him, and I thought he would lead them out of the woods back to the van, but Rev. Zorn surprised me. He told them they needed to get their shovels and help him put out the fire. After it was out, he explained to them, they would find me and take me to the authorities who would see that I received the punishment I deserved.
I wondered what how he expected to capture me. What were they going to do, hit me with the shovels and beat me into submission? My monkey’s fist would prevent that. Besides, beating me with the shovels was too good an idea to come from a mind as confused as Zorn’s.
He led the kids straight down the side of the ridge to the burning tree. I knew better to go downhill to a burning tree. What if it spreads? How fast could they run uphill to get away from a fast-moving fire? What was Zorn thinking?
When Zorn and the kids got to the tree, they began to throw dirt at the flames with their shovels, which didn’t do any good. In fact, Tony Smith and Dieter almost got caught in the flames when two adjacent trees caught on fire.
A burning tree is a burning tree, but three trees burning together is a forest fire in my book. Zorn started getting the kids away from the fire. First, he sent the Collins twins running up hill to the camp. Then he had to rescue Tony and Dieter, who were caught in the triangle of the three burning trees. He ran into the fire to rescue Tony. This heroism surprised me. I didn’t think Rev. Zorn had it in him. Zorn put a handkerchief over his nose and mouth and went back for Dieter. The boy had passed out from the smoke, and Zorn had to carry him away from the crackling flames.
Back at the camp, Zorn and the boys stood around Dieter, who was slowly coming to. I could hear him gasping. The noise of the fire grew much louder. It was spreading fast.
Rev. Zorn pointed in what he thought was the direction back to the car and told the boys to run. I walked over to a good spot to ambush them. I swung the rope and hit Tony with the monkey’s fist when he ran by. The wallop brought him down hard. Dieter saw me beating Tony and turned to run back toward Zorn. I extended the reach of the monkey’s fist and knocked him down. The Collins twins arrived next.
After I splashed the lighter fluid on the twins and chased them toward the flames, I pissed on Dieter’s unconscious and bloody head to prove my hose was too long enough and then headed up wind so I could see and breathe. I went to the part of the ridge that wasn’t on fire and came upon a disheveled and dirty Rev. Zorn. He held the gun in his hand. I said, “Rev. Zorn, are you trying to put out my campfire?” He looked with wide eyes and an open mouth. I was laughing.
Zorn raised the gun toward me with a shaking hand, and I flicked open the folding knife. I pointed it very surely at Zorn’s solar plexus.
“Put the knife down, son.”
“God judges sinners harshly, son.”
“Youth ministers who shoot kids don’t do too well, either.”
His eyes looked up, as if he sought guidance. I used this lapse in his attention to strike, stepping forward fast and forcefully. My knife struck his chest and sank in. He collapsed, saying, “You bed-wetting son of a bitch.”
Bending over the prostrate youth minister, I pulled the knife out. Blood dripped from his mouth, and he struggled to breathe. Mindful of the spreading fire behind me, I watched him gasp. I stepped on his heaving chest and he groaned and lost consciousness. I walked way, so happy I was whistling “Light My Fire.”
I left Zorn with the gun in his hand. I didn’t take the gun because if I got caught later it would really look better for me if he were the one found with the gun. I did take all the cash in his wallet. Next I took off my shirt, splattered with Zorn’s blood, and changed into the shirt Isaac Kane had stashed in the bucket.
I heard something crashing through the woods behind me. At first I thought it was Dieter, but when I looked back I saw a large black bear tearing through the trees to escape the fire. I stepped out of his way, but Zorn couldn’t. The bear leaped on him with a bound as if Zorn were another log on the floor of the forest and then kept moving. The bear trod hard on Zorn, and I thought I heard ribs breaking. Zorn didn’t move. I guess he was already dead. The bear would have to eat him roasted later.
I followed the ridge for a few miles. My memory of the map on the true-crime website was correct. A broad ribbon of state highway ran north of the park. It was nearly deserted. I dropped the bloody knife in the ditch by the side of the road.
I’d discovered drawing blood thrilled me more than setting a fire. This and the knowledge of how to make a kill kit were the gifts of Isaac Kane, my spiritual father.
I wanted to be noticed as little as possible, so I walked by the trees and away from the shoulder of the road. As I walked, I mulled over a few things, made plans. I would spend the money I took from Zorn’s wallet, little as it was, in a big hardware store. I’d make and hide my own kill kit. I couldn’t buy a gun, but I just proved to myself that I didn’t need one. Nobody would think anything about a kid with a bucket. My personal kill kit would include a knife, preferably something cheap and sharp like a utility knife, bleach to destroy DNA evidence, rope to tie someone up or to bind a corpse into a small bundle, a drain cleaner compound to hasten decomposition, a cigarette lighter to supply my old friend fire, and a folding shovel.
I smelled smoke when I was downwind of the park. A couple fire engines passed me on the highway. Nobody stopped to ask me questions. I doubt if anyone even noticed me. I started thinking about a few of the things Rev. Zorn said to me. I knew he was more a bullshitting manipulator than a helper, and I disliked him for that. A couple things he said did stick in my mind. He was onto something in his thinking about God’s will, but he didn’t understand what God wanted. I don’t claim to understand what God wants for me to do, but I do think that Zorn was right and God did want me to go on the camping trip.