Over the course of the next few days, Luke and I continued our conversation about my fear and indecision about joining Niteo. I was closing in on less than two days until I had to give John my formal answer and I still felt just as unsure about which side to settle on.
On one hand, joining Niteo could be the absolute best thing to ever happen to me. It could offer me a life I’d never dreamed was humanly possible. I could live to do great things here with people who were just like me, and learn how to reach out to others who were still stuck in the kind of situation I’d been trapped in for so many years.
However, on the other hand, joining Niteo meant giving up a lot of things I’d often considered for my life. I’d always dreamt of getting far away from Ohio—as in, across the country far away. Northern Michigan wasn’t exactly far away. I’d also dreamed of going to college and pursuing writing and psychology as a career. If I didn’t give myself a chance to pursue my own interests, would I wake up in ten years regretting everything?
More than weighing the pros and cons of the decision, what weighed on me was whether I could fulfill my intended role with Niteo. Luke’s father talked so much about destiny and how my fate had been set forth when my mother was still pregnant. I was supposedly intended for the society and I was meant to do all these great things for all these people, some of whom didn’t even know who I was. Never in my life had I ever imagined that I was supposed to serve some greater purpose. I always pictured myself as an ordinary girl who got stuck in the wrong place when Jim came around. I was going to go through my life, live out what dreams I still could and die peacefully knowing I’d done what I set out to do.
Joining Niteo meant changing my thinking entirely. It meant embracing a future chosen for me a long time ago and it meant reinventing what I thought about myself—and that became the subject of my conversation with Luke when we got out to his refuge.
“You keep saying that you think I am qualified for this position because you think I am strong enough, but you haven’t told me why you are so convinced,” I started as we got comfortable on one of the lower tree branches.
“Why I’m so convinced that you’re strong enough?” Luke asked with confusion.
“Well, yeah. I mean what is it that makes you think I can do this? You obviously see something that I don’t.”
Luke looked at me without speaking for a moment. He started to speak a couple of times before finally settling on the right thing to say.
“Cassie, I think you are strong enough for this position because you have already proven it to me. In the five years I have known you I have seen the amazing strength you possess. I don’t know anyone else who has gone through your past and managed to keep quiet about it for so long and then pursue their attacker all the way to trial the way you did. I have also never seen anyone come back to their faith and embrace it with the passion that you have despite the circumstances they have been through. Cassie, you are one of the most mature people I have ever met, and you are the most encouraging person I’ve ever known. You can handle this position because you have overcome so much in your life and you are still thriving.”
Luke’s speech gave me a lot to think about. I wondered if he only saw those things because he wanted to see them despite them not really being there.
“You don’t believe a word I just said, do you?” he asked with concern as he stared into my eyes.
“I do to an extent. I just can’t believe all of it. I may have done those things, but I don’t think I pulled them off as flawlessly as you seem to think I did. I had my mother compelling the truth out of me during the trial. And I had you to heal my migraines, so they didn’t slow me down. If I take this position, I don’t think there will be room for any mistakes. Those choices only affected me—this position would affect everyone in Niteo.”
“You think your previous choices only affected you? Don’t you think they saved a lot of other girls from being attacked by Jim? Don’t you think they affected your mother? Your father? Me?”
“How did they affect you? Other than bringing you down with me?” I was starting to feel dejected by our conversation.
“They did no such thing, and I think you know that but won’t admit it to yourself. In fact, I think you do believe everything I’m saying but your problem is that you won’t admit the truth to yourself. Don’t let the enemy change your mind. You know I’m right, and you need to embrace that full force.”
“I suppose. I just don’t see it yet. I’m scared to say that I’m ready for such a big task just to find out that I’m not. I can’t let everyone down again.”
“What do you mean again?”
“You don’t think that I let my mom down in my past?”
“No, I don’t. She even told you that she took all the blame. She is your parent. She admitted her mistakes and told you that she should have handled things better. This is not your burden to bear.”
I dropped my head a little.
“Cassie, you’ve made it through the hard part. Jim is in prison and will be for a long time, and you have the rest of your life to be free from him. Don’t let him take that from you. Your mother wants to see you move beyond all of this and embrace your future, whether that is here or somewhere else. We all want to see you embrace that freedom we all found.”
Luke was right. The one thing I noticed about everyone else in the Castellum group was that despite their pasts that brought them here, none of them dwelled on their history. I would never have been able to guess that they had all been traumatized if they hadn’t told me. That was where I wanted to be. I hated being the girl who focused only on one part of her life and felt the compulsive need to speak about it every chance she got. I wanted to be healed and forget about my past, so I could move on.
Part of me knew that Niteo was the key to that future. Part of me knew that if I wanted to get beyond what I was and clasp the future I had before me, I needed to admit to myself how strong I was. The problem I now faced was listening to that part of me rather than the one that told me I would never amount to anything more than a rape victim.
After everything I had gone through, I did not feel capable of upholding the position that I had been chosen for. I didn’t want to let anyone in the society down, but I also feared that whether I took the position or not, they would face the same fate. Accepting the responsibility and failing at it had to be the same if not worse than backing down altogether. At least if I backed down, they could find a new leader and the pressure would fall on them. I didn’t understand why I had to be the chosen one. I never asked to be special or different and never wanted that distinction. I wanted to be normal and have normal problems and decisions. I wanted my biggest concern to be where to park my car in the city or whether or not to stay in or go out for dinner, not whether or not I would become the leader of a secret society with as much potential as Niteo.
I knew that I had to make a choice and that I was running out of time before I had to make my decision public. Luke and I returned to Castellum when John messaged him requesting his help with something.
I decided to try and clear my head on my own. Luke wanted an answer to the big question and I really wanted to give him the right one. I gathered my Bible and a notebook and pen from my room and went out to a favorite spot I had on the grounds of Castellum.
There was a second river here, other than the one at Luke’s refuge. This one was a bit wider across but had the same crystal-clear water that the other one had. My favorite part of this small area was the young tree that sat just before the river banks. I wasn’t sure why I felt so drawn to nature. Perhaps it represented peace in my mind because I often ran away from my abusive past to wooded areas. Whatever the reason, I was always happiest when I was surrounded by it. I settled into my favorite spot by the tree and opened my Bible and notebook.
For the past few days, Emily had challenged me to read through the Old Testament stories of strong Biblical women and their role in history. Today, I was planning to finish up reading about Esther. I lingered on Esther longer than some other stories I had gone through because I felt I could relate better to Esther than some other women. She had a specific purpose, and I couldn’t help, after my introduction to Niteo, feeling that I was being called to similar plans. I admired her strength and courage being able to stand up for her people despite the risk to her own life. I knew that accepting my place in Niteo might one day require the same actions on my part, and it scared me to think about it.
I spent a while reading through the last few chapters of Esther. As I continued to read, I felt my mind beginning to wander yet again. I knew that the root of my problem was fear. Simple as that. I was afraid to do what I had to do, and I was allowing that fear to have more power than it deserved. The problem was that I didn’t understand how to conquer said fear.
This was a struggle that had become a familiar friend over the years if you could call it that. I decided to pull out my phone and run a simple search for verses about fear. I knew the Bible was the one place I could find an answer to my fear problem—I just needed to be willing to trust its answer.
The list was exhaustive. But the one verse that most stood out was 2 Timothy 1:7. God didn’t give us a spirit of fear. Quite the opposite. We didn’t have a need to fear this life or what it could bring to us because we had a stronger God fighting for us and with us.
The answer was simple. Trust God because he was for you and that meant none who came against you would not prevail. Fear had no place in my life. It was not something I was meant to dance with as long as I had been.
I didn’t realize how much time had passed until I heard Luke approaching from the south side of the building.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked as he settled himself beside me under the tree.
“Emily challenged me to read through stories of women in the Old Testament. I’ve been reading about Esther today and it’s making me think.”
“What about her?”
“I’ve read those verses I don’t know how many times before. I’ve studied them, and I thought I understood them, but I never thought of them beyond that. I never thought about God wanting us to handle our problems by turning them over to him. I know it seems obvious when reading her story, but I just never considered that for my own life. I mean I always used to study Psalm 55:22 too, but I always thought of that as telling God what was in your heart and then handling it on your own.”
“You’re right – God does want you to give him your problems. But he doesn’t want you to handle them on your own. God yearns for us to lean on him and to find our answers through him.”
“It’s just such a strange concept for me. I’ve always been so independent and wanted to handle things on my own. I was fearful to turn Jim in, but it also took almost eight years because I wanted to take care of myself.”
“Sounds like a habit you need to learn to break,” Luke said seriously.
“I guess so. How did you get to that point?”
“There was actually a different passage that told me about the attributes of a Christian and from that passage, I learned about what is expected of me. Once I learned that I saw things from a different perspective.”
“What other passage?”
“Romans 12. The beginning of the chapter details what a true Christian looks like. The most important thing I learned is that we are called to live by a higher standard than non-believers.”
“What does that mean?”
“It just means that as followers of God and members of Niteo, we recognize that we serve a higher purpose in life. God has called us to this society to help other people who need it.”
“I suppose you’re right. I wish I didn’t struggle with this so much. I want to accept that calling, but I just keep coming back to feeling like I’m not the right one to fill those shoes.”
“I’m happy you brought this up and can talk about this with me. You never used to be able to talk about these kinds of things with me, which shows that you are growing. I have something for you from John.”
Luke handed me a silver box that he had hidden inside his jacket. I opened the box and pulled out a tattered old journal.
“Is this what I think it is?”
“It’s my great-grandfather’s journal. John showed you his entry about founding the society on your first day here, but there is one other entry in here that I want you to see. Look at the last entry.”
I flipped through the journal to the last page and read the final entry John’s grandfather made before he died.
“I know that my time here is coming to an end, and I can’t deny how thankful I am for the years I’ve been able to spend with the society. I have seen many things happen in my time and I have been blessed to take part in the founding of such a powerful cause. Before I leave the society, I feel as though I must make one thing clear. I fear that this society will not always be a safe place for its members if the leadership falls into the wrong hands. I sense a great threat approaching from within. All members must be aware and on high alert. The leadership of this society is imperative if it is to prosper. The task of leading Niteo will be appointed to one person specifically. I have seen visions of a strong individual appointed for this task specifically because they are qualified beyond reason. This leader must face the choice to accept or decline their mission, but I only pray they make the right choice. The fate of the society is in this bloodline, and if the wrong choice is made, I fear for the future of Niteo.”
I was speechless. How could John’s grandfather have known so much during his lifetime? What kind of threat was he talking about? Could he be referring to me and my choice about Niteo? I didn’t know how to react to the entry. I collected my thoughts enough to talk to Luke about it.
“Why didn’t he show this to me my first day here?”
“He didn’t want you to feel like you were being pressured to make a decision that day. We still want you to make a choice on your own, but John felt you should know exactly how crucial your decision is. This is not something to be taken lightly. He can tell that you have been carefully considering your choice, and he just wants you to know what your choice means.”
“What do you think he meant by the threat?”
“Honestly, I’m not sure yet but I do know that it means that your choice is even more crucial.”
I dropped my head and sighed.
“I will have a decision by Saturday, but right now I’m still not sure. I need to think more.”
“I understand, Cassie. I know this isn’t easy for you.”
“Thank you,” I mumbled.
“Are you okay?” Luke asked as he placed the journal back in the box.
“Yeah. I’m just stressing about this. I knew this was important, but it feels like there is even more pressure on it now.”
“Are you leaning in any one direction?”
“I honestly don’t know. There are pros and cons to both sides and up until today I was starting to lean more toward joining, but after reading that passage from John’s grandfather, I don’t know if I can handle that much pressure. What if I accept this position and fail to protect the society? What if I can’t keep this threat from taking over?”
“Well, who says that joining now means you have to accept the leadership position immediately?”
“I figured they would go hand in hand.”
“John said he isn’t even sure what this threat is or when it will arrive. You may have a while before being the leader of Niteo means anything different from being an ordinary member.”
I took Luke’s words into consideration. Maybe he was right. Leading Niteo may not mean any immediate changes to my life. I wasn’t ready for my life to change completely. I had barely gotten used to the idea that Niteo was a real thing and that I was expected to make such important decisions here.
“Do you think that is a real possibility?”
“Cassie, I don’t want you to worry about anyone else’s expectations of you. Right now, you only need to think about what is right for you. The rest will fall into place.”
“How can I not worry about that Luke? If I take the wrong step, everyone else falls. I can’t risk not thinking about everyone else.”
Luke paused. I knew he was getting just as frustrated as I was about everything. After reading the entry, I was not looking forward to the next couple of days because I knew they would be incredibly tense.
“I’m sorry. I wish I could help you more,” he said after a few silent minutes.
“It’s not your fault. I’m just crumbling under the pressure,” I said dropping my head again.
Luke put his hand under my chin and lifted my head up. “You are not crumbling by any means. You are stronger than you think. You’ve come so far already. You need to give yourself some credit for that.”
“I just don’t feel like what I’ve done so far measures up to what I still have to face. I can’t help but think that whatever this threat he saw is bigger than any of us thinks it will be. He said he fears it will come from within, that means someone in the society could pose a threat to all of us. I know that I am not ready to face up against anyone here, any of my family.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that but I promise you that no matter what, I will stand with you and support you as much as I can,” Luke said as he kissed me.
“Have I told you how much I love you?”
“I think I understand,” he said and smiled at me.
Luke and I continued talking into the evening. He was always good at taking my mind off whatever was stressing me out. Before parting ways for the night, I told him that I needed some time to think about everything and to process what he’d told me. He wished me a good night and kissed me on the cheek before heading back to his own room.
I lay in my bed in the dark for what felt like hours. I wanted so bad to listen to the logical side of myself. I had every reason to believe that I could overcome my past and force it to stay there. If everyone else in the society could, I knew I could too. And if I wasn’t qualified for the opportunity I had before me, why would God have given Clara her vision? He would not call someone to such a powerful position if they weren’t qualified to serve his purpose.
I awoke with a start in the middle of the night. The nightmare was the same as so many other nights—Jim returning to make good on his threat that final day in court. But tonight, it hit me harder than normal.
My nightmares were inspired by my past—plain and simple. Sometimes they were direct flashbacks of memories from those years. Sometimes they were other things—darker things that my mind conjured up based on the emotions my past created. No matter what they were, they always disturbed me in one way or another.
What bothered me more about this nightmare was what it caused in me. It came down to fear. These nightmares were rooted in the many forms fear took in my life. I feared Jim. I feared he would return and hurt me again. I was afraid of how to embrace the future after everything that had happened to me.
Fear interrupted every part of my life in some way. And it wasn’t ill-placed. I had plenty of good reason to fear the things I feared. But what was ill-placed was how much control I was allowing this fear to have in my life.
Control was an ongoing battle in my life. I’d lost all control as a child under the reign of Jim. He stole a lot of things from me, but control was one of the hardest things to swallow. I made it my mission to regain that control. I took it so far as developing a severe self-harm habit and a slew of on again off again eating disorders.
And the worst part of it all was that I’d just stood for it. I’d given up trying to fight it anymore. It felt pointless to go up against something so strong; especially when I didn’t even know where to begin.
But that wasn’t the case anymore. Now, I had some advantages which I previously lacked. I had the advantage of time. There was time separating me from my abuse. There was space between my last indulgence in my self-harm habit and my last bout with an eating disorder.
Having that time to separate me from those negative things brought with it another advantage: strength. The more time that passed, the more strength I felt growing within me.
That was what it boiled down to. I had the tools I needed now. I didn’t possess them before when I was still in the throes of what was stealing my control and creating my fear. But things were different now. I had those tools and so far, I was barely putting them to use. I was hardly showing the world what I could do with my newfound strength.
I couldn’t fall asleep again. My mind was racing too much with the thoughts of what potential my life could now hold. I grabbed a notebook from my shelf and a pen and began writing furiously about all the things God was laying on my heart about my future and how I was going to make those things happen. This was my chance to change the path Satan had tried to set me on, and I was going to take it.
By the time morning rolled around, I had easily written nearly ten pages of rambles from my mind. Luke knocked on my door around seven and I was anxious to tell him everything.
“What is it you have to tell me? You’re up earlier than usual,” he asked still full of sleep.
“I did something last night.”
“What did you do?” Luke asked suddenly filled with concern.
“Nothing bad. I had another nightmare and I couldn’t fall back asleep after. So, I started thinking and that lead me to start writing.”
I picked up the notebook and offered it to Luke. He skimmed through the pages of my writing and looked up at me with joy in his eyes.
“Cassie, this is amazing. Does it mean what I think it means?”
I walked over to him and took hold of his hands.
I nodded. “Yes. I’ve made my choice. I’m joining Niteo.”