I had fully expected an edgy night of sleep; but not for my normal reasons. Ordinarily, I had a hard time sleeping due to nightmares disrupting my slumber or memories invading my otherwise peaceful mind. But not the night leading up to my baptism. I was restless for the better part of the night but in a way that I didn’t mind being fidgety.
The night leading up to my baptism had been more than a little eventful. Between my initiation ceremony, finding out that not only were my two best friends going to be back in my life on a regular basis but were also key players in this whole society and Luke’s proposal, my mind was having a hard time picking one thing to focus on.
I had all kinds of dreams that were clearly induced by everything that had happened in the previous twenty-four hours. In one dream, Luke and I were already married, and I could see my large, swollen belly as he wrapped his arms around me and kissed me.
It was no lie that I struggled with the idea of children. When I was younger, I wanted nothing more than to be a mother. But my history with Jim changed a lot of my thinking. Now, there was still a part of me that wanted to be a mother, especially to Luke’s children. I just didn’t know how quickly I wanted to start a family. Luke and I had plenty of time to start a family and there was part of me that wanted to just enjoy being married to him for a while before things had to change.
In another dream, I was sitting around a fire talking to Grace and Angela about their crazy adventures and before I knew it, we were all on a huge ship together, sailing toward what I’m sure was one of their many destinations over the years.
Travel was something I longed to do at some point in my life. All throughout my years of abuse, I was stuck. I wasn’t allowed to go far from home per Jim’s rules about keeping me close “for my safety.” His sick desire to keep me close for his own pleasure kept me from doing so many things I wanted to do. But now I was free from him and I could choose to do what I wanted.
Now that I had my decision behind me, I was beginning to realize that I hadn’t taken care to plan much of my life beyond that choice. I had desires and things I’d planned long ago, but nothing had been set in stone. After the baptism, I knew that wedding plans would begin and no doubt my place in Niteo would become more defined and my role of leadership would start to become clearer.
But what else? How long did we have until this imminent threat to the society reared its ugly head? How long would it take for me to learn how to wield my gift in a useful way? Would there be any time for me to simply enjoy being a member? A wife? Would there ever be a way for Niteo to make me feel normal like I’d always wanted?
There were so many questions surrounding my future, I hadn’t the slightest idea where to begin.
I decided to give up on sleep entirely somewhere around five am and walked over and sat at my desk. I opened my Bible and turned to a random Psalm and started reading in hopes that it would help settle my mind somewhat.
It just so happened to be Psalm 103, a special and close passage to my heart. I felt so at peace when I was spending time with God. Ever since I’d found my way to a true connection and relationship with God during the trial, my life had changed in countless ways. I would be lying if I said that everything became easier and I suddenly saw the reason for all that happened to me and was ready to just forget it all and move on. In fact, in the time since I found God, my life had become more complex than I ever thought was possible. The difference was that now, I felt I had a solid foundation on which to base my fears and misconceptions. I didn’t have all the answers; nor did I want them. I had something better. Something that I knew couldn’t possibly fail me. I finally had something to trust in.
Today was meant to be a joyous day, and it was. But now was also when my decision became even more real than it already had. I had announced my choice to stay with Niteo the day before, but once I was baptized the permanent changes would take place and there wouldn’t be a chance to change my mind. My faint outline of a seal would watermark itself onto my skin permanently. My aging would slow to the speed of a member. My immunity against illness and temperature changes would go into effect. A lot of things had already changed, and now even more about to.
I was finally confident that I was making the right choice, but the permanency still frightened me. I liked having the option to back out if things got too difficult. I had no intention of doing so, but options always felt more comfortable than forced action. Somewhere around my fourth time through the chapter, I heard a light rapping on my door.
“Cassie? Can I come in?”
“Sure,” I responded to Emily.
She let herself into my room and stood beside me at my desk.
“Where is Luke?” I asked. I had expected he would be the one to come gather me.
“John asked me to come to get you, said he needed Luke for something before the ceremony. How are you feeling this morning?”
I paused. “You know what? I’m excited. I was feeling a little overwhelmed this week, and last night I couldn’t sleep so I woke up and started reading this Psalm again and again. And then, it hit me. God has clearly called me for a special line of work within his kingdom and a real baptism is the first step. My first baptism was about looking good for everyone and pleasing others in a place I never belonged, nor wanted to belong. Today, I am being baptized out of obedience to this new life and even though I still have my small fears, my mind is simply at peace about it.”
Emily smiled and wrapped her arms around me.
“I am so happy to hear you say that. I’ve been praying for you for a long time.”
“Really? I’ve only been here a month,” I said feeling surprised by Emily’s comment.
“True, but I’ve known about your destiny in Niteo for nearly twenty years. I cannot tell you how excited I am to know you and to be able to call you my sister.”
“Not until November 20th,” I said jokingly.
“So, you guys already set a date, did you?”
“We talked about it last night. November feels like a good time. Winter has never been my favorite season; this will give me a reason to celebrate it. Plus, six months seems like plenty of time for you to plan a wedding,” I said and smiled at Emily.
“True,” she said whimsically.
“I’m excited. It’s going to be a big day,” I said with caution.
“What is it?” Emily asked with concern.
“Nothing,” I lied.
“You know that won’t work on me. Luke has warned me of all your tricks, you know.”
“Of course, he has,” I said making a mental note to punch my fiancé the next time I saw him.
“So? Spill,” Emily demanded.
“It’s just weird for me still. Having such a big family, so many people that care about you. I mean, I’ve always had my mom and brother in my life, but they were it for me. I mean, my dad was there but he also wasn’t. He always lived so far away, and we just never bonded much. But then, I met Grace and then Angela. And Luke. Suddenly, I had more people than ever. And I was happy. But then Grace and Angela left. I was so happy that Luke never left—but I always feared he would. Even now, I have Audrey and Caleb and the girls and all her kids plus everyone here. I have more people in my life who love and care for me than I’ve ever had. But instead of enjoying the time I have with them and appreciate their love for me, I’m scared. I’m afraid they’ll all just leave me.”
“Cassie, you were made to put your guard up early in life. And no one was there to show you that it was okay to lower it, or how to do so. And that’s okay. That’s what you have us all for. No one here comes from an easy background. That’s why we’re all so good for each other.”
“How did you let your guard down? I mean, after what happened to you in the alley? And with your parents?”
“It took time. A lot of it. And trust. It might surprise you, but I had a lot of trouble trusting people when I was younger.”
Emily leaned over and picked up my bible.
“This,” she said and handed it to me. “This book, the stories and lessons inside, they’ve taught me so much about not only myself but about love. That’s what this book truly is; a love letter from God to us. Once you put your trust in him, you put your trust in his word too. Hold on to that trust and it will do some amazing things for you.”
I leaned over and hugged Emily.
“I can’t wait until November so I can call you my sister,” I said fighting back happy tears.
“Oh please, as if technicalities matter. I’ve pegged you as my sister since Luke came home the night after your first date. He’s been smitten with you since day one.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
“Thank you for talking to me. I needed to talk a little before going out there.”
“Well, are you ready now?”
“I think so.”
Emily led the way out of my bedroom and down to the back side of the building. John, Luke, Natalie, and Clara were already outside waiting. Luke greeted me with a hug and a kiss and John proceeded to lead us to the river.
We walked past the training field to a narrow dirt path with rows of stones lining each side. The path twisted a couple of times and eventually led to a small hill that overlooked the river I had heard when I arrived the first day. The scene was even more beautiful than I imagined.
The river was set amongst several tall trees that shaded the entire area. The river was narrow along the base of the hill but opened to a small pond a few feet further down. The water was crystal clear. I could see the sandy floor beneath with a few iridescent rocks glowing at the bottom. Angela and Grace were waiting for the rest of us at the edge of the pond. As we approached them, I saw their overwhelming excitement written all over their faces.
As we walked, my head was flooded with nerves. My choice was made and in a few short moments, I would be finalizing it. This was probably the most important decision I had made to date and I was beyond thrilled that it was finally over. Having that pressure gone off my shoulders literally felt like a physical weight was lifted.
I looked forward to my future as a member. I looked forward to the various perks and I was increasingly excited to learn what my gift was and how to wield it to its fullest ability. There were a lot of things to look forward to as I took this final step toward sealing my membership for good.
I still wondered what my new position would hold and how my life would be different as a member, aside from the obvious changes all members underwent. John and Luke seemed confident enough that the threat John’s grandfather felt was not coming in the near future, but something told me they were wrong. I couldn’t explain why I felt the way I did. I just had this uneasiness about the whole thing. It was almost like something was trying to tell me that danger was on the horizon and we all needed to prepare ourselves.
I tried to keep those fears from my head. Today was a happy day, and I was finally getting to do something positive with my life. After nearly a decade of torture at the hands of Jim, today I was just thankful that he was behind bars in state prison that was several hundred miles away. Somehow, physical distance helped me create a mental and emotional distance as well.
John led us down the hill and walked into the center of the pond. The water reached just above his waist. He waved his hand at me as if to ask me to join him.
I turned and smiled at everyone else and followed John’s footsteps into the water. The water felt like ice against my skin. I took in a deep breath and could smell the sweet scent of the trees and water around me. As I walked, I rested my hand against the surface of the water and reveled in the freedom it made me feel. Being in the water was such a unique experience. Temporarily weightless and free to be swept in whatever direction it pulled you—it was like letting your cares go free. I stood beside John and faced the rest of my family. John placed one hand on my shoulder and began speaking, barely hiding a wide smile.
“Cassie, I cannot express how happy I am to have you here now, under these circumstances. Your newfound faith has certainly been an encouragement to the rest of us here and we are looking forward to seeing you continue to blossom. Not many people are challenged the way you have been, but seeing how far you have come in just the past few weeks is truly inspirational to all of us.
“Now, do you acknowledge your acceptance of true faith in God?”
“Yes, I do,” I said with confidence.
“And are you prepared to live your life according to his purpose, beginning with loyalty to this sacred ministry?”
“Then, on this, your confession of your faith, and at your request, I now baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
John placed his other hand on my forearms as they crossed over my chest. He gently swept me backward and completely immersed me in the water.
As he brought me back up, it felt as though everything was in slow motion. I felt the outside air against my face as I broke through the water, but it felt different than before. The air that had just been freezing against my skin felt almost warm. It was comfortable. I wasn’t shivering against it anymore.
Just as I came up, a single bright ray of light broke through the canopy of tree leaves above –-the morning’s first rays of the sun were shining down on me. I could feel their warmth against my skin but when I placed a hand on my cheek, my skin felt no different for having sunlight on it. My temperature was even. The immunity of membership had already changed my body.
When I made my way back to my own feet, I felt my body fully changing to become a true member of Niteo. I put my hand over my chest and felt my heartbeat slow from a flutter of excitement and nerves to a gentle, slower, even pace which signified that my body would no longer age at the normal rate. Feeling that change inside me brought a peace I didn’t know I could physically feel in this life.
I instantly noticed that I heard every noise around me – every chirping bird in the trees as life returned after the night, the slow, tempered breathing of everyone standing around me. I smelled the woods, more so than I had before. The river water, the plants. It was almost overwhelming. I saw further than I ever could before. Beyond my family standing around me, I was able to make out the smallest details on the building of Niteo without squinting. I dropped my hand from my chest and let it rest on the surface of the water. I felt the energy surging through the ripples created by my fingers. I even felt the wind gently brushing around my body.
I’d always been told that I had higher than average senses, in that I was more sensitive to changes in my environment than others around me. I was always the first person to get cold when the heat turned off in the house or the first one to smell something baking in the oven. Part of membership in Niteo included heightened senses. Not super by any means but heightened to the level God intended them to be before sin entered the world. Perfect vision, perfect hearing and so on. I intended to enjoy every moment of seeing and experiencing the world the way God first intended it to be experienced.
The seal on the back of my neck sent a chill down my spine as the faint outline pressed itself into my skin permanently. I couldn’t wait to get a glimpse of it in the mirror and see its color and details. The sensation of it becoming a part of me was odd, yet wonderful. It was similar to the feeling of when I got my tattoo on my arm—just not painful. It was like a light buzzing over the space on the back of my neck. When it faded, I shivered again and noticed goosebumps take over my arms.
My entire body felt full of life in a way I’d never felt before. It was like a never-ending supply of espresso straight to my veins. I could not contain my joy. I bowed my head and clasped my hands together and began praying. I didn’t have specific words in mind, but I just allowed my thankful mind to wander and poured out all that I had to God.
I don’t know how long I prayed, but when I lifted my head again, everyone was at the edge of the pond to greet me. Luke helped me out of the water and scooped me up into his arms.
“I’m going to get your shirt wet!” I exclaimed as he spun me around.
He simply pulled me closer and smiled when he set me down and passed me a big towel to dry off.
“I am so excited for you, Cassie. Welcome to Niteo.” He sounded so genuinely thrilled. It warmed my heart.
Those words brought a renewed smile to my face. Everyone took their turn congratulating me and giving me a hug. John took a picture of my newly highlighted seal and then decided it would be best for Luke and me to have a day to ourselves while he and everyone else went to work figuring out what my gift might be.
“How about we take a walk around the training grounds?” Luke said giving me a look that I knew meant he had a special place already in mind.
“That sounds nice,” I said and followed Luke back up the stone path.
We walked past the training field, into a small patch of woods. Just beyond a few trees, I heard the sound of another river. I knew where Luke was heading, and I was more than happy to return to his refuge.
He helped me cross the river on the stones and I knelt beside the river to ring my hair and shirt out one last time. I threw my hair up into a messy, wet bun and wrapped the towel around my shoulders. Luke and I climbed into the hammock together. I took a deep breath as I crossed one arm over Luke’s chest and rested my head against him.
“I love you so much. I’m so happy here.”
Luke kissed the top of my head. “Good. I hoped you would be.”
“I’ve been so worried about this day and whether or not I was making the right choice, but I know I made the right one. Everything feels so perfect now. Like I’m exactly where I’m intended to be.”
“What finally convinced you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, when you accepted membership, you said that you finally realized your choice wasn’t about being normal or not but that it was about being the right kind of normal. What made you realize that?”
“Actually, it was something you said. You told me that the abnormality we face here as a member isn’t the same kind of abnormal as my childhood. I didn’t want to accept that at first, but you’re right. The normal I craved isn’t the right kind of normal for me. I could have chosen to turn away from Niteo and go back to my old life. I could have moved out to Seattle, gone to school and started a new life, but I would have had to sacrifice so much, and I think that in the long run, I would have regretted my choice.”
Luke smiled and kissed me.
“I’m so happy I convinced you.”
“Me too,” I said returning his kiss.
“So, a black silhouette of a tree. Any thoughts on what that could mean?” Luke asked me after a few moments of silence.
I looked up at him. “I should be the one asking you that question. You know a lot more about this ministry than I do. Do you know anyone else with that seal?”
He shook his head. “You’re the first that I know of. But that makes sense that your seal would be unique. Your place here is unique.”
“Do you think John will be able to figure it out?”
“He’s managed to figure out everyone else’s so far. Just give him some time.”
“That’s the hard part,” I said with unwanted impatience.
Luke chuckled and rubbed my arm. “I promise, the wait will be worth it.”
“Okay, let’s change the subject then,” I offered.
“What do you want to talk about?”
“The wedding,” I said with joy. “I’m sure that sooner rather than later, Emily is going to bombard me with her vision. We should have something of our own to offer her, right?”
“Absolutely,” Luke said with a smile. “Where do we start?”
“Okay, so, where do you want to go on our honeymoon?” he asked as he ran his fingers through my hair.
“Honestly, anywhere is fine with me. I’ll be with my husband. That’s all that matters,” I said with a smile.
“If you had to pick anywhere, where would it be?”
“I suppose, if you insist that I pick somewhere, I would say Seattle. I’ve always loved looking at pictures, and I have wanted to visit there for a long time. It’s where I pictured myself running off to after graduation. I had a whole plan of how my life was going to turn out. But then you came along with this extraordinary life and things changed for the better.”
“Seattle, it is,” Luke said with happiness in his voice.
“What do you see when you picture it?”
“Yeah,” I said with wonder. “What does that day look like in your mind?”
“I’ve not thought about it much. I only think about how exciting it will be to have a first look at my gorgeous bride.”
I felt myself blush at Luke’s comment.
“What do you see?” he asked.
“I see a lot of things. Friends and family gathered around, anxious to see us unite permanently. Now, I see Emily, Grace, and Angela walking down the aisle in powder blue dresses, each a different style, carrying small bouquets of colored daisies. Oh, and Lisbeth and Taylor too, of course.”
“Your favorite flower,” Luke said with reminiscence.
“Yes,” I said sweetly. “And I see a beautiful arch over the end of the aisle. It’s an outdoor ceremony, naturally. We’re surrounded by decorated trees. John can do the service, right?”
“Yes,” Luke answered. “I imagine he would be thrilled to marry us.”
I told Luke about some of my other ideas of my picture-perfect day. I couldn’t deny that marrying Luke had crossed my mind since the night of our first date, not to mention the fact that I’d been passively planning my wedding since I was about twelve. It was something that could take my mind off the horrors of my home life.
I mentioned color schemes and the unity tree ceremony we would partake in during our ceremony. There were so many small details yet to plan, but I couldn’t wait to get started on them. Planning the day that would solidify my life together with Luke was just as exciting as thinking about my future in Niteo. My life was moving forward in so many wonderful, unexpected ways and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
“There’s one person I’m dying to tell about my engagement,” I said suddenly.
“Audrey,” I said as the memories of life with her started flooding my mind.
“We can plan a special trip out to see her soon. I think she’d like a visit from you and I think she’d hit you if you didn’t invite her to the wedding in person,” Luke said with a chuckle.
“I think you’re right,” I said returning his laughter.
“I miss her so much,” I said with abrupt moroseness.
Luke wrapped his arm around me tighter. “I know you do. But she’s always just a phone call away. When did you last talk to her?”
“It’s been a while,” I admitted with shame. “I promised her the day I went back home that I would visit often, and we would talk all the time. But, I haven’t held up my end of the deal. I can count my visits since then on one hand. And the phone calls are even more seldom.”
“So, change that. Call her tonight. I’m sure she’d love to hear from you and find out that you’re planning a visit with some big news.”
I smiled. “I think you’re right. I will call her. I need to hear her voice.”
Luke and I stayed in the hammock talking about all kinds of things until the sun started to set. The joy of the entire day was so invigorating after my baptism. I couldn’t even imagine how much more joy God could possibly have in store for my future.
When we made our way back to Castellum, I retrieved my phone and called Audrey. Ending the night with a long talk with her was exactly what I needed. My life was finally on a positive course after so many years of terrible things happening. It felt so good to be on a good path finally.