“So, we never got to finish our conversation the night Luke proposed. I was sort of distracted,” I said as I joined Emily, Angela, and Grace on my bed.
It had been Emily’s idea to plan a ‘girls’ night’ so I could catch up with my friends and learn more about the society.
“True. Someone’s head was in the clouds once that ring was on her finger,” Angela said giving me a head in the clouds kind of look.
“Can you blame me?” I asked in a singsong voice. “I mean, my life changed a lot that day.”
“True, it did. I guess I can give you that,” Angela surrendered.
“So, let’s continue the conversation now. Cassie, I’m sure you still have a million and one questions about everything,” Emily suggested.
“Maybe more than that,” I admitted.
“So, spill. What’s first?” Grace asked.
“I want to know your stories. I think you all are fairly well acquainted with my story and how I got here seeing as you were all pawns in getting me here,” I said jovially. “But I want to know how you all ended up here. Ang, let’s start with you.”
She cleared her throat and started in on her story. “Well, as I said, I was born in 1966. I wish I could say that I had this glorious childhood and that I’m here because of some stupid choice I made, but I can’t. My childhood was dark, like yours Cassie.”
“What do you mean?”
“I wasn’t abused the way Jim hurt you. But I was abused. It was my mother. See, I’ve come to learn that there are a lot of different people in the world. Some care about certain things more than others. Sometimes where a person puts their values leads to happiness. Other times, it leads to the opposite.
“Where my mother placed her values was in status and success and notoriety. She was a clinical psychologist and she was becoming a big name in her field. She was paving the way for a lot of women in her field to gain the representation they deserved and she was helping a lot of people—except me.
“My mother established an image for herself and our family early on. And she held to that image like it was her Bible. It was enough to drive my father away early enough that I don’t remember a thing about him. Growing up, it was just me and my mother. She believed that people had to choose to be their best at all times and if they just tried, everything would work out for the best. It was what she taught her clients and how she lived her life.
“So, when I started having problems in school and the teacher told her I should see a doctor or talk to someone about my anxiety, my mother assured the teacher I would be fine after she dealt with me. My mother studied anxiety and mental health problems her entire adult life, but when she was presented with one so close to home, she just couldn’t deal with it.
“My mother refused to accept that someone in her perfect little bubble was anything less than perfect. She only raised and associated with extraordinary people and extraordinary people weren’t held back by things like anxiety. I told her constantly that I needed help. I needed medication or some way to help with what was going on in my mind. But my mother had other ideas. She believed that my ‘acting out’ was a cry for punishment to realign myself with the family goals. Every time I had an anxiety or panic attack, I got ‘corrected.”’
“Corrected?” I asked.
“At first it was just verbal lashings about how inferior I was being and making her look and how she couldn’t possibly have given birth to someone as weak as I was choosing to be. But, as I started high school and the problems persisted, the ‘corrections’ turned physical. Regular slaps across the face, being pulled out of the room by my hair, burns; a lot of terrible stuff that I don’t like to revisit. My mother was obsessed with creating this perfect image of who she was in the psychology world and of herself as the mother of this perfect child. She would starve me; hide food, lock the cabinets and fridge—because she always thought I was gaining weight and I had to be petite like her.
“She wanted me to be everything I was never meant to be. She wanted a perfect daughter. And I just couldn’t give her that. I tried so hard. I wanted so badly to be a daughter my mother could love and be proud of. I wanted her to want me. Just once, I wanted to hear that she loved me and wasn’t ashamed of me. But, I never got that,” Angela said nearly in tears.
“I’m so sorry,” I said as I held her close to me.
“It’s okay. I’ve come a long way since then and I’ve found my purpose in life. Niteo is my purpose. Niteo celebrates me exactly as I am.”
“So, how did you get away from her?” I asked when silence refilled the room.
“Well, when I was a junior in high school, my mother insisted that I start applying to colleges because she wouldn’t accept me going anywhere less than the places she’d gone. It was more pressure than I could handle on top of everything else she was doing to me. So, one night, I packed as much as I could carry, and I snuck out my bedroom window. I left a note on my pillow that just said I hoped I never became anything close to what she was and that I hoped she could find someone else to be the daughter she always wanted because I obviously wasn’t doing it for her.”
“Where did you go?”
“I just started walking with no real direction in mind. I didn’t know how to survive on my own, but I was convinced that anything had to be better than where I’d come from. I wound up at a homeless shelter for some time. I gave them a fake name and lied about my age, so they wouldn’t go out looking for my mother. While I was there, I was introduced to God for the first time and I learned about forgiveness.
“It took some time, but I forgave my mother for all she did to me. I realized that being the bigger person was more important than paying her back for what she did to me. Not long after I left the shelter, I stumbled upon someone who introduced me to a group of people with backgrounds so similar to my own, it was scary. He introduced me to Niteo and helped me realize my full potential.”
“I’m confused about something,” I said trying to put everything together.
“To join Niteo, I thought you had to seek justice for yourself. How did you do that?”
“In forgiving my mother for what she’d done all those years; making me believe those horrible things about myself and trying to make me into something I would never be, I sought justice for myself. Living my life the way I was intended to live it, is justice. My mother never got what she was after. In fact, when word spread that her ‘perfect’ daughter had run away, my mother lost a lot. Skeletons that she thought were long gone came running out of her closet.”
I couldn’t help but giggle a little at Angela’s last comment. It made sense that she sought justice for herself by living her right life. God’s plans always have a way of working out one way or another.
“So, what’s your seal?” I asked with excitement.
“An orange feather,” she beamed as she turned to show me.
“That is so cool. What is your gift?”
Emily and Grace both leaned in closer for this answer. It seemed as though even after all these years of knowing one another, the specifics of their gifts had never been thoroughly discussed.
“My gift is a little complicated. But, I think it’s cool. My gift deals with directing people to the right path; the path God has chosen for them. When I focus my energy on someone, I can put images in their head of things that will lead them in that direction.”
“So, it’s like guided meditation?”
“You could say that. It’s like guided imagery toward the ultimate plan for your life. It’s up to the person to put together the images they see and interpret their meaning at that time in their life.”
“That’s pretty cool,” I said as I thought about the ways Angela’s gift could come in handy. “So, Grace, what’s your story?”
Grace dropped her head as if she was ashamed to tell everyone the history that brought her to Castellum.
“Uh, I don’t really like to talk about it much,” she said sheepishly.
“You can trust us,” Emily reminded her.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you guys. That’s just such a dark time in my life. I don’t like to revisit it under any circumstances.”
“Not even to revel in the victory over it?” I asked with encouragement.
“No. Can we just drop it?” Grace snapped.
We all exchanged surprised glances with her.
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap like that. I’m just protective of my mind now and I don’t know how I would handle bringing up those memories again. If I don’t have to, I don’t want to share.”
Grace spoke firmly, and we decided to drop the subject.
“Will you tell me about your gift at least?” I asked with caution.
“Of course,” she said with a complete change in demeanor.
Grace turned to show me the purple cloud centered perfectly on the back of her neck.
“I’m a dream interpreter,” she announced as she turned back to face me.
“That’s awesome. How does it work?”
“It’s taken me a long time to get a good mastery of it but basically, when someone tells me about their dream, I can focus my energy toward what they are saying and I’ll hear a voice in my head explaining the meaning behind the dream. But it’s up to the person to figure out what that meaning says for them and their life.”
“Interesting. You know, the more I hear about these gifts, the more anxious I am to figure out what my own is.”
“It’ll come with time. Patience is key with Niteo. We’re all still learning and figuring things out as we go,” Emily encouraged.
“Thanks,” I said and rested my head on her shoulder. “So, what’s your story?”
“My story is different,” she started.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, my story isn’t as traditional as many others. You’ve met my parents; you know that my childhood wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, my childhood couldn’t have been better. I had parents who loved me exactly for me and did everything in their power to make my life comfortable and rewarding. It was my own stupid mistakes that provided me with an entry in Niteo.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let me start from the beginning. Luke told you his story, right? How he was put up for adoption because our parents couldn’t afford another child at the time and they wanted to give him his best chance in life?”
“Yeah,” I said hesitantly.
“Okay, so, I didn’t know he had been put up for adoption for a long time. I was told that Clara miscarried and the few weeks she was away from home were spent in the hospital recovering. But, in reality, she and John were putting Luke up for adoption without telling me. Fast forward several years to the day I found out.
“I overheard a conversation between John and Clara. He was consoling her because she was upset knowing that her son was celebrating yet another birthday without his parents and without knowing who he truly was. I immediately demanded answers and when they wouldn’t provide them, I took to finding my own.
“I gathered as much information as I could about the day he was born and placed for adoption and found that he’d been taken by a family who lived near Seattle. That night, I started planning.”
“My journey to find my brother,” Emily said with sincerity.
“Hadn’t you lived in the old house in Ohio your entire life? How were you going to get all the way to Seattle without getting caught?”
“I figured if I could get a couple of hundred miles away to start, I could buy myself some time to figure out the rest. I just needed to get beyond the reach of my parents. I ended up running away for three days. My life changed forever during those three days.
“I set up a makeshift home in an alley across town from our house for the first night. It was supposed to just be until I could find a way to get to Seattle—but my plans changed drastically that night.
“I had fallen asleep outside of an old apartment building. I thought it was abandoned, but I was wrong. I woke up when it started raining and found that I was no longer alone in the alley. There too, standing over me were seven men. The next thing I knew, I was being lifted off the ground and slammed into the wall. My head hit the brick hard, so I was sort of dazed for the incident, but I know without a doubt what happened. One by one, each of the seven men that were in that alley with me took turns raping me. It continued for over an hour until finally, something made them stop. I don’t remember what it was but they all ran away fast. I just collapsed after it ended, and I stayed in the alley for the rest of the night.
“When I woke up in the morning, I remembered what had happened and I realized how much blood I had lost from the concussion. I pulled one of the shirts I had packed from my bag and wrapped it around my head because I was not sure if it was still bleeding or not. I decided I needed to go home and tell my parents what happened. My concussion was worse than I thought, and it took a lot longer to get home than it took to get to the alley because I kept getting lost. When I finally got home, I told my parents what happened.”
“What did they say?”
“They were horrified, naturally. They worked with me as much as possible to get me through everything, but I told them that the only thing that would ever make what I endured worth anything, would be finding Luke and bringing him home. It took a lot of work, but a few years later, I stumbled upon the news clipping about his Uncle’s suicide and convinced my parents they had to go out there and try to get him back. And, well, you know the rest.”
“What was it like when he came home?” I asked with intense curiosity.
“It was an adjustment. He was angry about what happened to him with the Carmichaels and a lot of other things. But, with time, for the most part, things have worked out.”
“For the most part? What does that mean?”
Emily dropped her head. “It means that not everything here is perfect. But, that we make do with what we have.”
“You’re not making any sense, Em. Is there something else I don’t know about Luke? Something I should know?”
“It’s complicated,” Emily said with discouragement.
“So, help me understand.”
“It has to do with our gifts,” she started.
“What about them?”
“Well, you know about my gift, right?”
“Yeah, you told me the day Grace and Angela showed up. Your gift is being able to borrow the gifts of others. It’s why your seal is multi-colored.”
“Right. And my gift works on everyone, except one person,” she said with heaviness.
“Luke?” I asked as I started putting the pieces together.
“Yes,” she said with sadness.
“Why doesn’t it work on him?”
She sighed. “Do you remember what he told you about forgiveness? Before you knew about Niteo?”
“How could I forget? He wouldn’t shut up about it.”
“He talked about it constantly because he knew what the consequences of not forgiving someone before accepting membership were.”
“Wait, are you saying he didn’t forgive someone in his past before he got baptized and that’s why you can’t use your gift on him?”
“Not someone from his past. Our connection is broken because he never forgave me.”
“You? What did you do to him?”
“It wasn’t what I did to him. Luke was angry when he came back to live with us. Even though he said that he wasn’t angry about my parents’ decision, he was. Specifically, he was angry with me because he was given up because of me.”
“That doesn’t sound like him,” I said with shock.
“Luke was a different person when he was younger. Nowhere near the man he is today.”
“You said your connection is broken. Does that mean he can’t heal you?”
“Why didn’t he ever tell me any of this?”
“He’s not proud of his past shortcomings. He probably didn’t want to weigh you down.”
“That doesn’t matter. If I’m going to marry him, I need to know everything about him. I gotta go talk to him.”
I excused myself from our girls’ night and headed for Luke’s bedroom. I didn’t have a specific plan in mind for what I was going to say to him when I saw him, but I knew I needed to talk to him about this. I knew that once I saw him the words would come.
“Cassie? I thought you were hanging with the girls tonight. What is it?” Luke asked when he saw the pain on my face.
“I need to talk to you. Can I come in?” I said with urgency.
“Of course. Is everything okay?”
I rushed into Luke’s room and turned to face him. I didn’t know why but I felt I was on the verge of tears as I started to speak.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me about you and Emily?”
Luke’s demeanor immediately changed from concern over what was troubling me to shame.
“I’m sorry,” he started.
“No, I’m not interested in apologies. I want to know why you never told me. I’ve been initiated for almost a week now and I’ve known about this place for weeks—you’ve had ample opportunity to tell me. Don’t you think this is something I should know?”
“Yes, it is,” Luke answered dimly.
“Did you not trust me enough to tell me?”
“No, absolutely not. I trust you with my life, Cassie. You know that.”
“Then what was it?” I asked nearly pleading.
Luke stayed silent for a while. The space between us was thick with frustration. I knew Luke trusted me and I hated playing a card like that, but I needed to get the conversation going somehow. I couldn’t think of a good reason he wouldn’t tell me something this big.
“Luke?” I asked when more time than I was comfortable with passed in silence. “This is the part where you talk. Please, talk to me,” I nearly begged.
Still nothing. Luke sat on his bed and dropped his head in his hands.
“Luke?” I asked and started slowly approaching him.
“Cassie, I didn’t tell you because this is the one part of myself that I look at with utter disgust,” he whispered.
“What do you mean?”
“I hate myself for this. I mean, I absolutely cannot stand that this is true of me.”
“Luke, it’s okay. We can find a way to fix this.”
Luke jumped up quickly and started pacing.
“Don’t you think we’ve tried? Cassie, this connection wasn’t broken yesterday. It’s been this way for decades. John has tried everything he can possibly think of. There’s no way to fix what I broke.”
“Luke…” I tried to console him, but my efforts were futile.
He continued pacing but stopped when he reached the wall beside his door.
“There has to be a way,” I whispered.
I saw his hand balled into a fist at his side. And just as fast it was going through the wall.
“Luke!” I shouted and rushed over to his side.
He pulled his hand away from the wall. Blood dripped from multiple open scrapes and the swelling in the knuckles was already beginning; he’d definitely broken something.
I approached him carefully and walked him back to the bed and sat down with him. I’d never seen Luke’s anger first-hand. I’d known it was his greatest struggle in life, but I’d only heard stories. I couldn’t deny that seeing it on display like that made me fearful of him for just a split second.
He looked down at his bloodied hand and dropped his head.
“I’m sorry,” he said with emptiness.
He placed his other hand on the injured one and placed his fingers over the worst of the injuries. Within a few seconds, his broken bones were realigned and the swelling and bruising were gone. I would never cease to be amazed at how these gifts worked.
“Let’s talk about this,” I asked with caution. The last thing I wanted to do was provoke another outburst.
Luke sighed heavily and turned to face me. “There isn’t anything to talk about, Cassie. I wish there was. Truly, I do. But, I gave up that hope a long time ago.”
I dropped my head and took hold of Luke’s healed hand.
“Do you remember what you told me the night you dropped me off at Audrey’s? When you found out I’d relapsed again?”
“Cassie, this is different,” he started.
“How? How is this different? You told me that I needed to believe there was still hope for me; even if I felt it was hopeless. Luke, this may seem hopeless, but don’t you believe God is bigger than this?”
Luke looked at me with surprise in his eyes.
“You really believe that, don’t you?”
“Believe that there’s still hope? Yes, I do. Very much so.”
“No. That God is bigger than this. You’ve learned to accept him, haven’t you?”
Luke took on a look of pride. I thought he understood that my newfound faith was true, but I supposed I could understand why he would doubt it given my struggle with the fear of accepting my place in the society.
“Oh, that. Yes, I do. I believe that if God is big enough to rescue us from our horrible pasts and reunite you with your birth family and send me to a place like this, that he can show you and Emily a way to fix what’s been broken. God works in his timing, not ours.”
“Cassie, I don’t think I’ve ever loved you more than I do at this moment. I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted us to be able to encourage each other in this way. You’re right. Maybe not all hope is lost.”
I smiled and hugged my fiancé. I decided not to bring up the fear of his anger that night. Things had been heavy enough for one evening and I needed to figure out how I wanted to approach such a touchy subject.
I kissed Luke goodnight and returned to my room for the evening. The girls had all dispersed, so I was left by myself to think.
As I was taking off my makeup and getting ready for bed that night, I heard a light knock on my door.
I was surprised to see my mother nervously standing in the doorway. I knew the look on her face. It was the same look she’d used when she was trying to tell Josh and me about her new boyfriend who was moving in to the house. It meant that she had something heavy on her mind.