“My name is Duncan,” the man says over his shoulder as I follow him through a wide-open chapel room with a shiny, tiled floor and rows and rows of seats. “But you shall address me as Pastor.”
“Fitting,” I mumble under my breath.
At the top of the chapel is a high-up stage that holds a dusty piano and a wooden book holder with non-other than the Bible spread across it. I gaze around at all the empty seats, wondering why the members aren’t here because it’s Sunday. I would have thought at least one member would be here.
Then again, from what I saw of the compound outside, it is pretty big. There could be dozens of chapels. That could be where all those women were headed.
But where are the men?
Duncan opens a small, oval door around a red curtain and I step inside what looks like an office. My eyes scan over the shelves of books against the wall that are neatly organized and categorized in chronological order. That to me, gives me the first impression that Duncan has severe OCD. As I observe other objects around the room, I come to the same conclusion. Every single object on his desk, including his paperwork, has been lined up across it and placed perfectly vertical.
He walks over to the other side of the desk, and despite it already being neatly tidied, he begins re-straightening everything anyway, as though it’s his own compulsion that they’re not straight enough, especially with an audience watching.
“Take a seat.”
He gestures to the wooden chair in front of me and I gently slide into it, folding my arms over my lap as I glare at the light that seeps through the one, high window in the corner that reaches to the roof. The window is decorated with Biblical images, like the ones that I know too well from Church.
“Do you know what this place is?” he says as he stares at me, I see him through my peripheral vision, he waits for me to meet his eyes, but I glance down at my fingers instead.
“Is this a convent?” I say quietly.
“No. It is an Academy. Convents are for those that already hear the word of God.”
“And the members here. . . don’t?” I say, flicking my eyes up hastily.
He nods. “Parents bring their children here to correct them. To better them. However, we do have members that join voluntarily. Over time, many of them have been promoted to leaders and they pass on their knowledge and authority.”
I clench my teeth at the word correct. It angers me that he views us as incorrect, as damaged or wrong. We should be able to embrace who we are as individuals, as unique and bright humans from all walks of life, but that concept doesn’t apply to people like me, who were born into this way of life. It’s as though we’re not worthy of thinking for ourselves, or believing that we can be different--we have to all be the same, we have to all be obedient.
“How long have you worked here?” I ask.
“I have been running the Academy for twenty years, I took over from my father, and my son will take over from me.”
There’s something awfully odd about Duncan. He’s too calm, too keen to answer my questions. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he’s being polite. But his eyes tell me a different story, there’s a darkness there, although I can’t quite work out how bad that darkness is.
“Rest assured, Elizabeth,” he says, noticing my uncertainty. “You are safe here. I suppose you’ve never known safety in your life, have you?”
I shake my head.
“I can grant you freedom from the life you have come from. From the pain that your parents have inflicted. I can unite you with peace. Even if you are not committed with the faith, even if you do not feel as though you belong, one day, you will find where you belong.”
“How do you know about that?” I ask, narrowing my eyes.
“They didn’t even say goodbye,” he says, a cluster of pity laughter shrieks from his lips. “They didn’t even look at you when they left you here. They didn’t even give you a second thought. You are better with them out of your life. Parental abuse is very common here in many members, I take notice of it. Here, you will make friends, you will learn different types of survival skills, you will get stronger, able to take control when you are returned to the outside. Don’t you want to take control?”
I hang my head, giving a gentle nod.
“Then give it a chance,” he says, and then his hand falls onto a piece of paper and I watch as he slides it across the desk. “Just one signature, and you’re free.”
Duncan smiles at me, warmly and sweetly, as he holds out a pen in his palm for me to reach over and take. I glance down at the contract, my eyes scanning over every single word in less than twenty seconds. Every word is perfect. And then I reach the small print.
The member must remain inside the grounds of the Academy, and is not permitted to leave under any circumstances, regarding length of time, not stated.
“Do you think you know me, Duncan?” I say with a sudden smirk. “Because of a few truths that my parents have filled you in on?”
“Pastor,” he says through his teeth.
I lean back in my chair, folding my arms over my chest. “Allow me to fill you in on some fun facts about myself. I have an IQ of one hundred and fifty. I can read a book in under an hour, I’ve read almost every and all books based on psychology. I have an eidetic memory which justifies me to tell you what I’m telling you now. That contract is rigged. If no length of time is stated, then you can keep me here for all of my life and I can’t legally do anything about it. The speech about my parents leaving me behind with no care in the world, that was wonderful, what an award-winning rouse to get into my head. Well done. I’m not signing.”
Duncan remains expressionless, he leans back into his chair and begins tapping his fingers against the handle as he observes me, properly, for the first time. “I underestimated you,” he says, his voice flows along with the rhythm of his fingertips. “It won’t happen again. You will sign, one day, be sure about that.”
“What is this place?” I demand. “The women out there, they’re mechanical. They’re miserable.”
“How many psychology books did you read?” he asks.
“Enough,” I say. “You can’t just altar someone’s personality because you want them to fall into your congregation. It doesn’t work that way. Do you manipulate them all into signing their lives away? Or is it rare to find a girl that can see through it?”
He crosses his arms over his chest, taking large breaths as he evaluates me, again. “I’m impressed. The sin inside of you is much stronger than I anticipated. You see, Elizabeth, it doesn’t matter whether or not you sign the contract. The contract is merely insurance. By the time it will ever be needed, you won’t even be in the right mind to refuse. You are still a member here, as of now, and you won’t be leaving for a very long time. So I suggest you open your mind to your new surroundings, and gain comfort from knowing that you will be healed from the damage inside of you that you may view as personality.”
“Personality is free will,” I say. “To take away free will you are going against the Bible.”
“And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will, Timothy, chapter two, verse twenty-six.”
He gasps, widening his eyes with amusement. “Right you are. However, that passage is not interpreted by a human’s free will. But the damnation of being taken by the devil against one’s will.”
“That’s not a justification,” I say. “Whether it be the devil or otherwise, taking a person captive is-”
“That’s enough now,” he says, he pushes his chair back angrily and begins pacing himself around his desk. “Madam Katelyn is waiting outside to take you to your dorm. She is your supervisor and will report to me regarding any disturbances. Whatever you may think of me, please be assured, I am only trying to help you.”
I rise my from chair, looking him straight in the eye. “I believe you, and that’s what worries me.”
“You may go now,” he says angrily through clenched teeth. I might not had ever been able to provoke a reaction out of my parents, but I’ve definitely got under his skin. “God be with you.”
I turn away from him, feeling a wave of pride wash over me. I know I took that too far, I know I crossed over limits in which I will probably regret, but it felt so good. It felt good to finally stand up for myself, to finally have a voice, to be able to actually put my knowledge of the Bible to some use that can tear apart this foundation of pretense. And I will continue to do so, for as long as I am here.
I feel his frosty eyes on me as I open the door, glaring at me with frustration and loathe. I’m used to that, I’m used to being disliked and treated as an inconvenience. Only this time, it’s giving me courage rather than conviction.
I step out of his office, pacing myself back into the chapel that is still deserted, except now, there is a woman standing before the front row of seats. She turns to me, and I get the first look at her face. She looks the same age as my mother, and her back is slightly bent as she stands. She wears the same black and white gown that the leaders of the lines of women wore, and her hair is covered by a large, white bandanna.
“Are you Madam Katelyn?” I ask.
She nods. “Follow me, quickly. We have much to go through in little time.”
Before I can respond she is half-limping through the pathway between the seats, and I’m wondering what exactly quickly means to her.
“Where are you taking me?” I say.
“First you will change,” she says, staring forwards. “And then you will be put to work.”
“Work? What kind of work?”
“Allow me to phrase it more bluntly,” she says. “You work for us. And you will complete the job that you are given, to our standards, and afterwards, if you’re lucky, you might still be able to walk.”
“And if I’m not lucky?”
She doesn’t respond to that, but I see the corners of her lips curve into a delighted smile. Whatever ‘work’ she has in store for me, I get the eerie feeling it’s not going to be cleaning bathrooms.