Guest Post: Marcus Damanda

For today’s #FeatureFriday, I have with me Marcus Damanda, author of The Salvation State. He’s bringing us a treat: a sneak peak at book two in the Salvation State series! Be warned, it’s unedited and subject to change, but here it is!

(You can find The Salvation State, as well as Marcus’s other books, here.)

~~~

salvationstateTHE SALVATION STATE

BOOK 2:

ABSOLUTION ISLAND

By Marcus Damanda

Begun: January 23, 2016

PROLOGUE:

REMAINS

Artifact 1: From the journal of Daniel Forester, a.k.a., “Faust”:

It began after the war.

The first changes were bloody and violent. Over time, during the peace that followed, other changes just crept up on everyone. That’s what people said, anyway, those who were old enough to still remember life before the dirty bombs and the Scourge, before the rise of the New America Unity Church and the Revival. Those who dared to speak the truth, if only in whispers. People like my father, before they imprisoned and killed him.

As for me, this was the only world I’d ever known. New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C.—I knew that these places had once existed. I’d seen pictures, just like everyone else. We were told that those cities, and many others on the East Coast, had been lost forever, destroyed by the enemies of the Lord. The new government was born in Los Angeles—a strange name for a city that had supposedly been so wicked in the days of Old America. But over time that’s exactly what it became: the city of angels.

The country was “returning to God.” The new government said it was a matter of our survival. And so, collectively, we turned our attention inward—to the spiritual “improvement” of ourselves, even as we turned our missiles outward and dared the rest of the world to challenge our isolation. We strengthened our borders, our security. We built “our walls tall and our gates small.”

The first generation that reached adulthood during the Revival, which had included my parents, recall lines at Citizen Registry more than five miles long. They recall the disappearance of whole families, how certain houses became free for the taking—to the right people. They talk about the First Burning, when police with interstate authority looted the libraries and schools of all the remaining major cities. They remember the smaller towns carrying out similar raids of their own so that they might, themselves, retain some of their own perceived independence.

This Revival was still in full effect when I met Rebecca, but it had grown quieter in it its strength. The power behind all of it, the New America Unity Church, had found that it could now be subtle—even though, rumor had it, there yet remained certain places in New America that had not been wholly “tamed.” Those whom it targeted, like myself, generally disappeared without fanfare or fuss.

I didn’t believe in the existence of an “untamed” faction in New America when I first saw her. I didn’t believe in much at all. I was only sixteen then, and Rebecca Riggs was just another runaway, freshly captured and publically shamed in the media. A girl who, on a good day, would have been pretty enough to be compelling on television, her straight ash-blonde hair tied back in a tail, her bright blue eyes hinting at mischief—a supposedly harmless little preacher’s kid gone bad. Gone crazy, probably, out of grief for her parents. Gone viral, when she ran.

When they first got her, though, she didn’t look so captivating—just a captured rat, ragged and dirty and covered in mud and blood. Beaten and weak, like the rest of us. People on the outside called the campers of Second Salvations “the Forgottens.”

I imagine New America forgot her pretty quickly, once she was off the news. I can’t say for sure. I wasn’t in any position to monitor the public reaction. And I didn’t see her capture on TV. I saw her in person the morning after. Still, I’m sure she faded out in no time. New America has a short attention span.

And yet, Rebecca didn’t remain “forgotten” very long. None of us did.

Daniel Forester’s journal fragment was recovered from a subterranean bunker in the ruins of the historical district of Philadelphia, after the Battle of Gas Masks.

****

            Artifact 2: a printed transcript of the News 4 National Morning Show, which originally aired the day Rebecca was captured—and which was re-broadcast several times after that in a failed effort to de-mystify her public image:

Coverage begins with a headshot, a ninth grade yearbook picture of a smiling girl with blue eyes and shoulder-length blonde hair. For picture day, she’s wearing it down instead of in her normal pony tail. At neck level, the buttoned collar of the standard issue uniform for choir girls at Emmanuel Christian School may be seen just under the words “‘Renegade’ Rebecca Surrenders, Embraces Angel Island Guardian”.

Voiceover, Deborah Fisher, News 4: “This is Rebecca Riggs less than eleven months ago. The only child of local church leaders Michael and Alison Riggs, Rebecca was at one time an honors student and a rising star in her mother’s youth chorus ministry. Who would have thought this bright-eyed little seraph capable of the offenses chronicled over the past several hours? Running away, assaulting a police officer, theft, incitement, slander, heresy …”

Fade out / in: Video capture of Rebecca, age twelve, front and center of her youth chorus. She’s wearing a blue dress, holding a hymnal in both hands and soloing the third verse of Rock of Ages. Fade out.

Voiceover continues: “At age thirteen, Rebecca won the coveted ‘Young Christian Soldier Award,’ the first girl to do so in her home state of Maryland in five years.”

Hard cut: Rebecca in sweatpants, tee shirt, and gloves, handily dispatching a kickboxing opponent who is at least two years older than her, then helping him off the mat and patting him on the shoulder. Hard cut: Rebecca holding the award, a silver plated cross on a pewter Calvary base. One arm of the cross reads, “Character.” The other reads, “Strength.” Down the middle in larger letters runs the word “Truth.”

Voiceover continues: “A friend of Rebecca tells News 4, however, that it was at about this time that her relationship with her parents came under serious strain.”

Silhouette interview / identity undisclosed / voice altered.

Rebecca’s friend: “She started saying scary things. Disrespectful things. She even yelled at her dad once, in front of all of us. Her dad—that’s Pastor Mike—needed help with some things past church hours, and she … well, she said she had a mountain of homework, or something. He reminded her that she should have done her homework earlier in the morning, when she’d had time—which was, you know, completely the truth. We were all playing Frisbee in the yard for, like, an hour and a half. And … I don’t know, she just started yelling at him. It got pretty bad. He had to discipline her right there, just to make … you know, the right example. Happens a lot to other kids. Most of us kind of need it, from time to time. You know how it is. I just never thought it would happen to Rebecca. But things only got worse after that.”

Footage of Mrs. Fisher nodding.

Fade out / in: stock footage of the Riggs’s family car arriving at New Sinai and passing the entry sign for Damascus Teenage Retreat.

Voiceover continues: “It wasn’t until Rebecca’s friend had the courage to step forward and speak up, however, that her parents realized that they needed help. It seemed that Rebecca had forged her mother’s name on an illness note to justify an absence from school. One can only speculate what she was doing during the morning and the afternoon she played truant. All she would say to her friend was that she was ‘sick of it’ and ‘needed a break for one day.’”

Meaningful pause.

Voiceover continues: “So much for the importance of ‘homework,’ when she’d clearly begun to undervalue her education.”

Hard cut: Mrs. Riggs walking Rebecca to the admittance entrance of Damascus Teenage Retreat. Both ignore the presence of cameras. Mrs. Riggs tries to take her daughter’s hand at the door. Rebecca wrenches it away.

Voiceover continues: “Here’s a scene we’re all familiar with, a wayward child being brought in for spiritual guidance at a reputable, godly reeducation camp. None of the news outlets might have even taken notice—we certainly had no idea what was to come—if it weren’t for the nature of Pastor Mike’s work, and the fact that he came to us with it.”

Hard cut: Pastor Mike and Alison seated for an interview, holding hands. Pastor Mike speaks: “People need to see that everyone struggles with this. We’re not immune. I guess I’m just here to say, if we have to consider programs like these for our child, then anyone might have to. Don’t wait until it’s too late.”

Voiceover continues: “Rebecca’s parents had no idea how prophetic those words would become.”

Hard cut to static-snow effect / hard cut to a rough video of Rebecca in a black prefect’s shirt, speaking. Video repeats three times, words muted, lips pixelated to distortion.

“When news of the tragic accident reached her, ahead of the arrival of the liaison from Angel Island, it seems to all concerned that Rebecca just … snapped. Common enough under stress, especially for those in open rebellion against the church. The guilt, too, must have been unbearable, considering the way she had been treating her parents prior to their deaths. And so she blocked it, constructing a paranoid fantasy that quickly drew the attention of thousands of ill-informed Internet followers. ‘Renegade Rebecca’ fled into the woods of New Sinai to avoid going into the adoptive custody of Reverend and Mrs. Black. Hiding herself deep in the forest where only a police air ski could track her progress, Rebecca unnecessarily endangered herself—causing the nearby Masada Police Department to spend dearly of its own resources and man-hours to ensure her safety. Meanwhile, hundreds of her peers gathered around the mountain to pray for her swift return—not only to the care of responsible adults, but also to her senses.”

Fade-in to footage of the teenage vigil around New Sinai, the officer on the air ski, and to Mrs. Black praying with Deborah Fisher.

“She eluded capture for just over a day before the Lord—by Rebecca’s own account—finally spoke to her, leading to this dramatic moment, which we were fortunate enough to capture in digital definition. Here again, for those of you who may have missed it, is Rebecca the Rags-Child—or, as I like to think of her, Rebecca the Resurrected.”

Slow fade in: The vigil of kids at Damascus Teenage Retreat / the camera crews / lights on the edge of the forest. Rebecca emerges, head down, followed shortly by a police officer. Rebecca is mud-covered from her bare feet to her hair. Her clothes are torn and hang from her body in rags, nearly to the point of indecency. One of her DTR friends meets her in a hug. Mrs. Ruth Black from Angel Island embraces her. The camera does not catch Rebecca’s face as she leans in to whisper in Mrs. Black’s ear, but audio catches her words, which are captioned at bottom: “Are you the one? My new mom? I’ve sinned.”

Voiceover continues: “Which brings us to the end of her saga, although we’ll be eager to catch up with the ‘Rags-Child’ again when she reaches adulthood and, no doubt, rejoins her old church. Rebecca Riggs, lost and found. Resurrected in faith, even in the face of unimaginable tragedy.”

Deliberate change in tone.

“And now being called by her misguided, mostly young ‘renegade’ followers on the Internet, simply ‘Rebecca Rags’. The context for this term, although known to us at News 4, does not bear repeating. Suffice it to say, it’s in exceptionally bad taste.”

Pause. A smile.

“Wishing you and yours a blessed start to the new work week.”

Fade out. Rebecca’s singing of the third verse of Rock of Ages accompanies the fade.

Notes accompanying the transcript identified the girl in the interview with Deborah Fisher—Rebecca’s one-time “friend”—only as “Andrea.” A scheduled follow-up interview never took place. Nothing much was ever made of her. Circumstances surrounding her disappearance from the public record were never investigated.

End of release.

****

Andrea opened the small box and emptied it.

I shouldn’t have told on her, she told herself. I should have minded my own business.

She sat at her bedroom desk at home. Bullets clattered and rolled from its surface, a few of them softly thumping onto her carpeted floor. Her hands shook as she tried to load the clip.

This is the one thing I can do better than her, she thought. This is the only thing.

Rebecca had been better than her in kickboxing. Rebecca’s grades had been higher, and she’d beaten out Andrea for the solo spot in the chorus concert last spring. This was the one thing in which Andrea had shown herself superior: cleaning and readying a gun for firing. Such a small thing, yet it meant so much to her …

This should not be hard, she thought, dropping another nine millimeter bullet onto the carpet. She nearly slammed down the clip in frustration.

But it was hard, and there was a good reason why. What she was about to do was a sin. It was breaking a commandment.

She let me win, whispered the voice in her head. She felt sorry for me. She wanted me to be happy. And I ratted on her.

It was still Sunday, still the weekend. But it was late for a school night. Her parents would be in bed soon. This had to happen before then. She didn’t want to have them wake up to what she was about to do. Her courage ebbed.

She stopped. Closed her eyes. Breathed. Prayed.

But, again, that voice in her head. It would not leave her alone.

I shouldn’t have given that … damned interview.

The word “damned” did not emerge easily from within the fog of Andrea’s competing thoughts. “Damned” was a word that could only be safely employed in a religious context. To call a simple interview “damned” was swearing, even if you didn’t say it aloud. Thought-swearing was every bit as sinful as talk-swearing. Pastor Mike had always said so.

Pastor Michael Riggs, everybody’s favorite—at least in youth group—and Rebecca’s father. Dead, along with Rebecca’s mother.

It didn’t seem real. They’d been alive the day before yesterday, when Andrea had tearfully told Mrs. Riggs that she wouldn’t be joining her on the trip to the Baltimore Aquarium. It would not have been right, her going to that on Rebecca’s birthday—especially when Rebecca herself had been sent hundreds of miles away to DTR, to Pennsylvania, for the two week spiritual “fix.”

The trip had been planned for Rebecca specifically, and Andrea had ruined it for her.

She had watched them all get on, Pastor Mike and Mrs. Riggs and the eleven other kids from her church group. It had not occurred to her at the time to note that there would be thirteen people on the bus. Thirteen, Rebecca had once told her, had been considered an unlucky number back in the days of Old America.

Superstition. That, too, was a sin. That was a particularly bad sin.

But still, if she had gotten on that rickety old blue church bus, there would have been fourteen people on it.

By then, well before Andrea had learned about what had happened to that bus while crossing back over the Bay Bridge—or what everyone said had happened on the bridge—she had remembered that disloyalty was a sin. She knew, too, that snitching was wrong. Rebecca had been hurting no one, unless perhaps herself, by cutting a day of school. And it wasn’t like she’d been in any real danger. Not then.

No. Not until after the snitching. She’d been in all kinds of danger after that.

Andrea had followed it all on television, of course. After bedtime, she’d continued to follow the story under her bedcovers by watching it on her phone. She knew perfectly well that Rebecca would never had said the things that the TV people had reported: Are you the one? My new mom? I’ve sinned.

From Rebecca? Yeah, right. But … exactly what had she said, then?

The interview with Deborah Fisher had been taped yesterday, Saturday night, before Rebecca had been caught. Andrea had tried to say no to it. She had cried, sorely testing her parents’ patience.

Leave me alone! she’d wanted to scream. All of her friends from church were dead. She couldn’t even begin to process that grief yet, much less give an interview. Didn’t they understand that?

But she’d said no such thing. Andrea was not one to show disrespect to her parents, nor to her elders. She was a good girl. Or, she had thought so, once.

“Can I just talk to you, then?” Mrs. Fisher had asked. “No cameras?”

Mom and Dad had withdrawn. And she had spoken to Mrs. Fisher, who promised her that she’d remain anonymous. They’d make her a shadow, change her voice. No one would recognize her.

“I don’t know …” she’d said, her voice still uncertain in her own ears, tremulous.

And that was when Mrs. Fisher’s tone had abruptly changed.

“You will do it, you little bitch.”

Which had instantly quieted her.

“If you don’t,” Mrs. Fisher had gone on, “bad things will happen to you. And to your family.”

Andrea had just sat there, measuring the sincerity in the news lady’s eyes—and finding it absolute.

“Very bad things. Do you understand?”

And it seemed, for the very first time, that Andrea did understand—not only Mrs. Fisher, but everything else as well. The façade of grownup perfection, which Andrea had bought without question for her entire life, had been shattered in that instant. Mrs. Fisher wanted something, and if she could not have it by invoking the attitude of Christ, she’d have it by way of the devil.

And so Andrea had done as she’d been told. Later, when she could politely extricate herself from her parents—who were, by then, just so proud of her—she’d retreated to her room to watch the rest of Rebecca’s flight unfold without their commentary. It seemed that every site she visited had been plastered with Rebecca’s words, This is what the truth is. Unreal.

Just an hour ago, yet another video had leaked, first on the Grand Assembly page of Online Omniscience, thereafter spreading to … well, everywhere. Of all the things the church controlled in New America, cyberspace was apparently not one of them.

This video claimed to show a live feed of a church service on Angel Island.

Which was impossible. No one ever got to see what went on from the inside of any of the Second Salvations camps. It was the biggest mystery in existence, so far as Andrea knew. And this one—it was like the camera was right out there in the open, eye-level with all of the kids who seated themselves in the church pews. How could anyone get away with that?

But, in the end, there was no doubt. Rebecca was in the video. There she was, very near to whoever operated the camera, sitting between another girl and a boy Andrea did not know. It was only a quick shot before the focus of the camera returned to the front of the chapel, but it was enough.

Rebecca was wearing a poncho, dripping with rainwater. Most of her hair seemed to have been … hacked away, based on the sloppiness of what little remained. She was practically bald.

And then Andrea gasped. She could see where a piece of Rebecca’s ear had been shot off, even though everyone on television denied that particular Internet “rumor.”

It got worse. The service, it turned out, was a nighttime penance session: two kids, a boy and a girl, being made into examples for the rest of the kids, punished for all to see, tortured in a faux crucifixion for the benefit of what Second Salvations believed to be a highly exclusive audience—but was, instead, broadcast across the entire country. By tomorrow, some people would be calling the video a fake. But not all, Andrea knew. Many would believe it.

Andrea believed it. And now, she knew what to do. She found that, during her reflections, she’d managed to get a bullet into the clip.

This is a sin, said the voice in her head. I can’t do this. I’ll go to hell.

And it was a sin. Andrea knew that well enough. But she would not go to hell for it—at least, not today. Andrea had no intention of killing herself.

Her parents, however, would absolutely have to believe that she wanted to—and that was dishonest. It was a lie.

It would have to look like the gun had accidentally gone off in her hands before she could have finished the act. Skilled as she was with the custom girl’s model Gideon—a present on her last birthday—Mom and Dad would still buy the charade. They would remember that Andrea was distraught. They would say that the Lord had used her clumsiness to deliver her.

And she’d be sent away. For a suicide attempt, she’d be delivered straight into the hands of the most extreme spiritual counselors that could be had for love or money. She’d have a chance to put things right.

Have to make this good, she thought, aiming the gun at her bedroom ceiling, closing her eyes.

And fired—adding a small scream, just for effect.

****

The plan had been perfect. Andrea had the measure of her parents, and she found herself in the custody of Second Salvations that very evening. She felt strangely calm, even as she was escorted from her house and into a police cruiser, even as—much later—they blindfolded her and led her to a transport helicopter. What she had seen on the Internet had been horrifying, sure—but what she was doing now was the exact thing she should be doing. Her conscience was easy, her fear postponed.

But Andrea never went to Angel Island.

Second Salvations did not want their charges retaining ties to their old lives, whenever it could be avoided. They had several places where a wayward child might be brought home to God. There was no need to reunite Andrea with Rebecca at Camp 6.

Instead, at the direction of Ruth Black, they shipped her off to Camp 11, hundreds of miles away.

CHAPTER 1:

LIGHTS-OUT AND THE FERRYMAN

Sunday, August 23

Second Salvations Camp 6: Angel Island

Countdown: 7 Days Till the Lamb.

“I’m all in,” Daniel said. “What’s the impossible task?”

You already know, Rebecca thought. She returned his smirk. You know, and you think I’m crazy. But you’ll still say yes.

The rain had stopped. The fence had gone silent. Fog gathered.

The game she had mentioned—taking turns to conjure up a step-by-step plan to accomplish an impossible task— could be more than just a game, if they played it well enough. Carefully enough.

“Escape,” she said. She gave Daniel’s hand a squeeze, locked eyes with him. Waited.

Daniel’s smirk melted away. But he nodded.

“Yeah,” he said. “Hell, yeah. Let’s do it.”

“First step’s on you,” she said. Then she looked up at the clock tower. Five minutes until lights-out. “Better go.”

Daniel sighed, nodding again. Then he reached behind her head, drawing her close, brushing her cheek with his thumb. Here—right out in the middle of the quad. Sure, it seemed empty enough right now, but—

She eased his hand away. She smiled at him but shook her head. And she dashed away before he could say anything more.

There wasn’t time. Being late for lights-out would mean trouble. It would mean tallies. She passed the clock tower, splashing through the flooded footpaths that would lead her back to her cabin at 12D Bethlehem Street.

When she saw him again, would he have the first step? If not, she’d have to come up with it herself and let him think of Step Two. She considered. What was the first, most immediate, problem?

But no—that wasn’t how the game was played. It had been her challenge. The first step had to come from him. If this could be fun, somehow, then they’d feel free to be creative, to share any crazy idea that might cross their minds. And that was what she needed him to do. That was what she needed herself to do. Let it somehow be both real and a game, she said to herself. And that means not breaking the rules.

Bethlehem Street, dead ahead.

Daniel goes first. There’s no need to think about it until he’s had his turn.

As for being tardy at lights-out, she was more worried for him than she was for herself. Rebecca had Philis for a cabin-sitter, and Philis would be gone a while yet. Daniel, meanwhile, shared a cabin with Asher, who had given Daniel three tallies already and was likely to be waiting for him. It was a long, long time until next Saturday night, when the Absolution Tally Board would clear again.

The magic number is ten, she thought. Which means Daniel can hardly afford to get even one tally a day.

It was going to be hard for him, not having been brought up in the church, to learn how to stay out of trouble in a place like this. Rebecca wondered if it could even be done. Escape, crazy as the word sounded in her own mind, might actually be easier.

Escape to where? she asked herself for the thousandth time. Even if it can be done, you still have no idea where to go.

And again, she answered herself with, We’ll just have to part that sea when we get to it, chicken guts. It was her Devil’s half talking again. She made no effort to tune it out. Stepping up the soft wooden steps at her cabin’s only door, feet squelching on creaking wood, she found that she was becoming more and more comfortable with that half of herself.

She glanced back over her shoulder, downhill toward the clock tower and the quad. Daniel had gone. He had two minutes to get himself inside.

Hurry, she thought. You don’t want to keep Asher waiting.

And trudged inside, with time to spare.

****

“That was close,” Asher said, checking his watch and winking at him.

His room is closer to the front door than the bunks are, Daniel realized. Now that he and Rebecca had agreed to blow this joint, everywhere he looked presented an additional obstacle. Well, damn.

Daniel drew the poncho over his head and turned a full circle, looking for somewhere to put it. By the time he located the other three ponchos discarded in a glistening heap on the floor, his ears caught the beginning of a song that he found oddly familiar. It came from outside, a children’s chorus. Like the radio program this morning, it seemed to come from everywhere. One of the amplifiers, he knew, was on the clock tower. The others, he guessed, were probably mounted on the perimeter fence.

Really, the singers sounded like nursery school kids. And then he remembered the song: This Little Light of Mine. He and his mother had heard the Sunday school kindergartners at Eternal Witness singing that.

It cut off abruptly, right in the middle of the first chorus, and the cabin lights went out.

God humor, Daniel thought. Wonder if the twelve-year-olds across the street laughed?

Daniel looked out the window. The cabins were shadows under the silvery haze of a cloud covered moon. Every single light had gone out at once, as though the whole island had suddenly lost power. And, for all he knew, it had.

“Made it by, like, thirty seconds,” said one of his cabin mates. Skip, Daniel remembered, noting the boy’s longish hair and concluding he’d been here a while.

“Well played,” said the other, a boy called Rivers who lisped through his braces. “Asher don’t cut no slack. For our own good, don’t you know?”

“I know,” Daniel said, favoring Asher with an acknowledging glance. And thought, Do I ever.

They were already in their bunks, his two cabin mates, each leaning up on an elbow to speak to him as though a single set of controls operated them both. Unlike Asher, who was still wearing his Thresher uniform, Skip and Rivers wore pajamas. Like freakin’ seven-year-olds, Daniel thought.

It was hot and sticky in here. There was no air conditioning. This was a night to sleep in skivvies. Those two, meanwhile, were going to sweat themselves silly.

“I might have cut him some slack, this time,” Asher said, taking Daniel by the shoulders and directing him to his dresser. “It’s his first day. And he’s been so good, helping Vex get around. Very kind. I might have made an exception for that.”

“Don’t go soft on me now, boss,” said Rivers.

Asher yawned, softly chuckling at the same time. Then, to Daniel, “Gonna have to get dressed in the dark, my eleventh hour friend. And straight to bed. Morning devotions before sunup.”

Daniel reached into the drawer Asher pulled open for him and dubiously held up his own set of Angel Island jammies. He knew better than to object.

No questions, he told himself. Just do as you’re told.

He started to take his shirt off—

But Asher stopped him, turned him toward the bathroom. “In there, Faust.”

Daniel rolled his eyes. He could not help himself. Really? he thought. This from the guy who helped me crap in a bucket when I was tied up in the woodshed Friday night.

It was almost pitch black in the cabin, too. Asher and the others were only shadows in the dark. None of it made any sense. Nevertheless, finding himself grateful that Asher had not been able to see him roll his eyes, Daniel tucked the pajamas under his arm and made his way into the bathroom.

Not pajamas, he said to himself. From this moment forward, these are ‘night clothes.’

A few minutes later he lay down on his bunk and punched his pillow to mountain-shape. He didn’t draw the covers over himself, and he hoped no one would mind. He closed his eyes.

But Asher, who still had not retreated to his own room, wasn’t done.

“Prayers,” he said. “Now, I know this is all very new to you, Faust, so Skip will go first, then Rivers, and then you’ll repeat the words I pray on your behalf, just like we did while you were still in transition. We’ll do this for three nights, and after that it’s up to you. Got it?”

“Yeah,” Daniel said, keeping his voice neutral. “I got it.”

“On the third night, you will accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your own personal savior—if not before. Failure to do so convincingly will have consequences.”

Cool, Daniel thought. I’m your trained monkey. Just tell me what to say.

“Okay,” he said.

As Skip prayed—never leaving his bunk, still lying down—Daniel gave thought to his real job, the only one that mattered. Escape, she’d said. He tried to imagine it. He pictured the island as though from a low-flying airplane, taking it all in.

“Close your eyes, Faust,” Asher said.

This place is an onion, Daniel thought, shutting his eyes. We’ll have to peel it back one layer at a time. We can’t just bolt in the dark.

From Skip: “Lord God, thank you for protecting and keeping us.”

The first layer is the electrified fence. Step One is figuring out how to disable that.

“Thank you for Faust, our new friend. Help him to learn here, and to grow in You.”

But there were so many other layers, too: the teachers, the Threshers, the guns, the curfew, access to the skimmer skis … and the water wall.

God damn—the water wall.

And the landside police who would, inevitably, descend upon Angel Island like a swarm of pissed off wasps if anyone even got past the fence …

This really is impossible.

“Keep us safe, this night, from the devil’s temptation, and from our wandering, wicked thoughts.”

But my job, right now, is Step One. That’s all my job is. Well, that and staying out of trouble.

And Daniel thought he just might have an idea for that first step.

In the meanwhile, when it was his turn, he dutifully repeated the prayer Asher spoke on his behalf.

****

Ruth Black sat up in bed. From across the bedroom, the phone vibrated, rattling the top of the dresser. The clock on her nightstand read ten o’clock. She regarded her husband.

The Reverend Matthew Black did not stir. He slept with his mouth wide open, his toothless gums a cavern—or a trap for anything that might scuttle across his face in the night. There just wasn’t any permanent solution to the bug problem on Angel Island, especially in the summer. Not that they hadn’t tried to find one, as it pertained to their own dwelling.

She pushed his shoulder. The phone vibrated again.

He smacked his lips, ran his tongue over them. “Handle it,” he said, without so much as opening his eyes. Those were two of his favorite words. He could say those words, even without his teeth, and still be understood.

Why do I bother?

Her robe lay next to the bed, discarded on the floor. She pulled it on, cinched it, and padded to the dresser. By the time she got there, the vibrating had stopped. She checked the ID, frowned at it.

It was DC, Angel Island’s collector. The phone showed his real name, but pretty much everyone used only his initials when speaking to him. When speaking of him, Ruth liked to call him “the Dogcatcher.” He didn’t seem to mind.

But a message from the Dogcatcher at this hour was not likely to contain anything good.

Rather than leave a voice recording, DC followed up the phone call with a text message. It contained a URL followed by a single sentence: You need to watch this.

Ruth considered the bedroom computer. They left it on all the time, although the monitor was currently off. She could bring it up right here.

She glanced back at her husband, lying peacefully in bed, only half covered by the sheets. She sniffed, and could still smell him on her. Handle it, he’d said.

The office, then. If this one was on her, she preferred to be alone. She went for the door.

Unexpectedly, Matthew’s voice followed her, slightly garbled but still translatable. “What is it?”

“I don’t know yet,” she said, leaving the bedroom, shutting the door behind her. Tomorrow, she would undoubtedly find herself on the receiving end of one of his lectures about godly marital respect, and she would have to play contrite. But that was tomorrow. Tonight, Ruth was annoyed.

When she brought up the video on the office computer, her annoyance grew to anger.

It was tonight’s punishment session, posted for the whole world to watch. The video was only hours old, and yet it had already accumulated fifty thousand views. The increase tomorrow, Ruth knew, would be exponential.

How had Matthew allowed a camera into the narthex? How had no one seen it?

I should have been there. I would have stopped it.

It had been shared five hundred times—too late to contain. Impossible …

Eyes wide, Ruth identified another feeling within her, welling up like blood from a wound. Suddenly, she was afraid.

And that made her furious.

****

Charlie watched the approach until he saw them, marking their progress: a convoy of five all-terrain supply trucks. They were ten miles out from the lake before his helicopter passed them. They were right on time. He clicked the laptop closed.

The video was being shared everywhere. Good.

Well done, kiddo, he thought. Maybe we’ll see each other tomorrow.

It had been weeks. They couldn’t be seen as too close to each other. Nor could they be perceived as deliberately avoiding each other. It was a tricky dance—but, so far, they had managed it.

Charlie, known to the Forgottens of Angel Island as “The Ferryman,” always arrived well ahead of Monday’s fresh shipment of new serfs. Tomorrow, there would be twelve of these, all delivered via a single large chopper to the banks of the lake that surrounded the island. From there, they’d step onto the massive “Moses Boat,” currently being loaded with the week’s supplies and “requests,” that would take more than an hour to reach the loading dock on the island’s east side.

It was a model of inefficiency. If Charlie had any interest in the continuing success of Second Salvations, he would have suggested that they invest in an island-side helipad long ago. Not that the Reverend or Mrs. Black would, in their shared paranoia, ever agree to such a thing. No—they preferred to keep access to the island as limited and as inconvenient as possible.

Charlie stepped onto the helicopter’s landing skid, holding the door with one hand as it began its descent from one hundred and fifty feet in the air. The pilot shook her head at him, traced an exasperated cross on her chest with her fingers. Pilots hated when he did that. He winked over his shoulder at her.

The lake was fog covered, both murky and shimmering and hauntingly beautiful. He hoped the fog would hold until morning. It would be a nice touch, a real gift from God, complementing his Ferryman image with some good old fog.

But it was going to be a long night’s work first, and an even longer morning once he was island-side. It always was. There were nearly one thousand people on the island—and only ten people, not counting the human cargo, to help him move their freight. But this particular visit promised to be especially taxing.

The grownups were going to be in a bad mood tomorrow. And Charlie was worried about that, mostly because he was certain they’d take it out on the kids. But it couldn’t be helped.

He hadn’t liked what he’d seen in that video, not one little bit. He hadn’t expected to get a video this week, truth be told. His boy on the inside was only supposed to be taking shots of their security—and their infrastructure, such as it was. But the boy had sent it, and Charlie had decided to use it.

Charlie let go of the door and stepped onto solid ground, the rotor still whirling over his head. He checked his pockets. Ruth’s pills were in his right. He’d have happily provided them to her for free—he had a difficult time imagining anyone more in need of birth control than her—but he was also more than happy to take her money.

In his left, he found a most special little vial of magic: a bottle of eye drops, carefully prepared by the best optical surgeon that money could rent. There was a certain camper on Angel Island who had a unique prescription due for a refill.

I’ll have you home soon, he thought. I’m sorry I ever let you talk me into this.

As bad as the Forgottens already had it on Angel Island, it was all-too possible that it was about to get even worse for them.

But his boy had sent the video. He had wanted Charlie to share it. It would be the beginning of the end for the Reverend and his whole, wretched organization. Surely.

Even a blind kid could see that.

****

Rebecca sat at the open window of her cabin and watched the moon finally peek out from behind the clouds.

She checked on Gab. Still contentedly asleep on the top bunk, little cat snores whistling through her nose at intervals, Gab was her only company, and she was out cold. But to Rebecca, sleep felt impossible.

She was glad the rain was over. Through the whole torrential pummeling during services, there hadn’t even been the most distant rumor of thunder, and the only lightning had been the sparks fizzling off the steel wires of the electrified fence. She was grateful for the moon, for a little real night light.

She took out her keyring. Again, she studied the picture—just herself and her parents posing together last month at the beach—and tried to commit more of it to her memory. She needed that memory to be exact, perfect in every way and permanent, before she got rid of the keyring.

Keeping it was dangerous. It was forbidden. It was “old life” stuff—and big, big trouble, if she should be discovered with it. She kissed it. Put it away.

Where was Philis? More to the point, where was Caroline? They’d gone off together straight after services to It’s Not Manna, all in an effort to calm Caroline’s upset stomach with a little soup. Rebecca had no idea exactly how long ago that was—she didn’t own a watch anymore, and the window didn’t face the clock tower—but she figured on two hours at least.

Meanwhile, Gab had shown Rebecca where all of her things were supposed to go and led her through the whole bedtime ritual, which really hadn’t been all that different from what she’d gotten used to at DTR. Her nightgown was soft white cotton—hardly to be distinguished from what she wore at home, but heavier.

She and Gab had traded off a couple Bible verses they were fond of. Then they had prayed aloud, each in her turn, and called it a night. After that, Gab had rolled over in her sheets and, for all Rebecca had been able to tell, passed out in moments. It was almost enough to make Rebecca think people actually got used to it here. And that was a very scary thought.

I should get in bed, even though I can’t sleep.

And she did. She knew she was supposed to. Philis seemed pretty cool, as far as the Threshers went, but it was best not to take chances on the little stuff.

For the second time since lights-out, she prayed. This time, she broke the rules by doing it silently. It was her true prayer.

In it, she asked for things that would not have been met with approval on Angel Island.

****

“It’s a nice thing to do,” Philis said. “A true Christian thing. When you feel bad, you do something nice. Simple self-therapy, Wren, you know?”

Caroline nodded. It was the best thing she had learned on Angel Island so far. And she felt better for it. Not great, but better—even though it was getting very late.

She and Philis had the sleeves of their tee shirts rolled up to the shoulders and were better than elbow-deep at the end of what had been a mountain of unfinished dinner dishes in a steel sink half the size of a bathtub. At four in the morning, the kitchen “help” would awake to find that they had nothing to do but get breakfast ready. Caroline knew from counseling that this was not the way things were supposed to work. The kitchen crew consisted entirely of criminals—or, as Mrs. Harrell had called them, “lowlifes, lower than the animals.”

“Our secret,” Philis had said.

Now, putting the last of the dishes away, massaging her sore wrists and forearms, Caroline wondered why they didn’t at least have dishwashing machines here. She’d never actually washed dishes by hand in all of her fifteen years. Still, “Thank you, Philis,” she said. “It’s just what I needed.”

“That and the soup,” Philis said, shouldering her, beaming.

“You didn’t have to go out of your way like that,” she said. “To make sure I was okay, I mean.”

Philis toweled off her hands. “I know,” she said. “You have your other friend, too.”

“She’s probably worried,” said Caroline.

“Rags,” Philis said. Then she shrugged. “I have a feeling she’ll be all right.”

Caroline snorted. Yeah, she thought. One day in, and she already has a boyfriend. She’s so all right, she’ll get herself killed.

“What?” Philis asked, sounding bemused.

“Nothing,” Caroline said. “I guess, I don’t know, it’s just … that’s what everyone thinks when it comes to her. It’s not fair—to her, I mean. She’s as scared as anyone. Even me.”

“You remember what I said?” Philis asked. “Earlier, that first time in the cabin?”

Caroline nodded.

“You have to be careful. Sooner or later—probably sooner—Magda will want to talk to you about her. She’ll ask questions.”

Caroline listened. Hadn’t Philis said that she loved it here? Wasn’t she loyal to the other Threshers and Mrs. Black? To the Reverend?

She remembered her holding her scarred arm up, for all to behold, during punishments. Such solidarity with those poor kids, Merci and Gnash. If Caroline hadn’t been so horrified by it all, she might have felt a twinge of … envy at that kind of bond.

“You’ll need to tell her the truth,” Philis went on. “If you don’t, it’ll come clear sooner or later. Just … be careful how you tell it. How you present it.”

“Be careful,” Caroline repeated.

“Yes,” Philis said, coloring the word with urgency. “What Magda hears, Mrs. Black hears. You can’t ever forget that—because Ruth Black really has it in for your friend. It’ll be a while before she lets that go, before it can be normal for her. Okay?”

I’m not a traitor, Caroline thought. I won’t spy on Rebecca—not for Magda or for anyone. I won’t.

“Okay,” she said.

“Good,” Philis said. “Better get ourselves back, then. We’ve missed out on enough sleep as it is.”

****

Vex had no problem finding his way in the dark. He’d been doing it for weeks. It would have been dishonest for him to have said, however, that he didn’t even notice when the camp went lights-out. He knew when the lights went out for the others, and he knew when they went out for himself.

Now, he thought, after carefully focusing his listening on each of his cabin mates, one at a time, for the past fifteen minutes or so.

None of these were in his club. There had been a cabin scramble, earlier in the day, and he didn’t know any of these boys well enough to trust them. He’d taken enough of a chance trusting Faust.

And so he remained mindful of their presence, even while sleeping, and took his cane with him, tapping the floor with it ever so quietly as he made his way to his dresser. From underneath a pile of socks and underwear, he withdrew a pair of sunglasses. He put them on top of the dresser.

From the top of the dresser, he took the other pair—the one with the camera lens and the send button under the nose bridge—and slid those under the socks and underwear. From one of those socks, he recovered his eye drops. Holding them in a closed fist, he listened again.

Nothing but steady breathing. Excellent. From a different drawer, he took an ordinary pen—one with a small L.E.D. light on the non-writing end.

He then quietly tapped his way to the bathroom.

Of course, there was some chance the tapping itself would awaken his cabin mates. No big deal if it did. He just needed to use the can, as far as they would know.

You cannot let the illusion slip, the Ferryman had said. If you’re going to do this, you have to keep it up even when no one is watching.

Vex closed himself in. He set his cane against the wall. He switched on the pen light and placed it upright in a toothbrush holder. He used the toilet before using the eye drops.

Courtesy to my fellow Forgottens, he thought. No one likes sharing a bathroom with a blind boy.

He studied his face in the mirror.

I have been able to see for six hours, he thought. It was a personal record since his arrival here. The magic of the eye drops only lasted so long, thank God. He didn’t plan on staying here forever, and he looked forward to reclaiming his eyesight on a permanent basis. Months of landside practicing under a blindfold—for only an hour at a time—had been poor preparation.

He stared himself in the eyes. They were almost normal, just now. If anyone saw them like this, he’d be finished. They’d probably kill him.

He dripped the solution first into his left eye. His vision narrowed. With his right eye, he watched his left go from blue to slate gray. He watched his pupil expand under the gray film until no iris seemed to remain. Then he dripped the solution into his right. There was nothing left in the little bottle after that.

He watched the light from the pen shrink to a point, then disappear.

Welcome back to the black, he thought, feeling around until he had both the empty bottle and the penlight. He slipped them into his pajama pants pocket so that he could focus on using the cane, which he now needed. He felt an instant’s worry that the Ferryman would be late this week, that he wouldn’t arrive until Tuesday or Wednesday. Without the eye drops, Vex would be discovered by then for sure. But he brushed the unwelcome thought away.

His father was never late.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s