I keep my eyes on Duncan ready for my intervention, when suddenly, a strong hand grips my wrist, yanking me out of my charge and I am pulled back into the silence of group C. I stumble back into the crowd, turning to meet the calm eyes of Ruth.
“Don’t,” she sneers. “Don’t even think about it.”
“Get off me,” I say, trying to break my wrist free from her grasp.
“Look around you,” she says, “They’re testing you.”
I gently turn my head, gazing upwards at the oval of supervisors and leaders. All of them are staring at me, all of them are evaluating me, they’re waiting for my reaction.
“Every time a new member joins, Pastor brings the assembly forward,” Ruth says quietly. “In every assembly, something like this happens. He wants to divide the pure from the sinned.”
“What happened to new members that spoke up?” I ask.
“They were escorted out of here, and we never saw them again.”
I flinch as the girl’s screams once again bounce across the room. I turn away, clenching my teeth together as her cries for help push me to the edge.
“The girl will be fine,” Ruth says. “She’ll be taken to medical. She’ll heal.”
“And the boy?”
“Pastor won’t touch him, he likes to make the boys watch. He favours them. They’ll both renounce their sins, and then they’ll be free to re-join their groups. If their groups will allow them back.”
I scowl at the word free. How is that freedom? How is being put back into a group a reward? By the sounds of group A, I suddenly get the feeling that the two of them belong there. And group A doesn’t seem like the forgiving type.
“What if their group rejects them?”
“They’ll be downgraded,” she says. “If group B refuse to take them then they’ll be placed in our group, but only if we take them.”
Suddenly, the screams of the girl drown out, and silence befalls the chapel--causing our conversation to be cut short. I turn around, my eyes flick back up to the stage and they land on the boy who has the face of someone that may as well had been beaten. Watching someone you care about endure such pain must be a greater punishment than the physical pain itself. The girl is still conscious, she’s a fighter, she lays on her hip with her arms tight around her stomach as she cradles herself softly while whimpering.
Duncan blows some of his fallen hair out of his face that sticks to his forehead by sweat, he stands over the girl’s head, glancing down at her with a twisted smirk.
“The only way to exile the devil, is to beat the devil!” Duncan shouts, igniting a wrath of praise from group A and B. “The female holds the devil. The sin of seduction. I do not blame this boy for falling for the devil’s trap.” He points his finger at the boy, making the boy turn his face away to gaze into oblivion. “It is not his fault that he was seduced. This slut took his attention from us. But now we have gained it back!”
I look around as the roars continue, hands are now vertically pumping through the air and not desperately reaching towards the terrified boy. He wants to look towards the girl, I see it in his eyes, he wants to crawl over to her and wrap his slim arms around her. He wants to take the pain away. But he can’t, because he knows she would be the one receiving the consequence. I’ve never seen bravery like that. He has to leave her alone in the loneliness to save her--even though that loneliness will last a very long time.
“Settle down,” Duncan says to his beaming audience. “The devil has been cast out. Her sins will be heard. I will redeem her, I will save her!”
The girl still holds her stomach, her head remains on the ground, she’s too scared to move. One of the leaders gathers her up in his arms and lifts her from the stage. She’s so tiny in his huge arms, such a breakable little thing. She doesn’t make a sound, she just allows him to carry her away from the boy that is itching to see her.
Duncan moves towards the boy, placing his hand on his shoulder. The boy flinches, straightening with anxiety. “Do you renounce your sin before the eyes of the Lord?” Duncan says.
“Yes,” the boy says quietly.
“Yes!” the boy shouts. “I repent.”
“I did not ask you to repent, I asked you to renounce.”
“I renounce my sin,” the boy says, his lips tremble as he looks around the chapel. “I kissed her. I’m sorry.”
Duncan lifts his eyes up, above the boy’s head, and the boy squeezes his eyes shut as Duncan removes his hand from his shoulder. “Group A. Do you accept his renouncement?”
The men’s group A responds by shouting in disgust and curses. His renouncement isn’t good enough for them.
“Group B,” Duncan says. “Do you accept his renouncement?”
Group B are silent, they’re more conservative, more observant--they make their judgement by thinking it through, not by reacting on impulse. Eventually, as though they all think with one mind, their voices deliver the conclusion together.
“No,” they all shout.
Duncan’s eyes stray further, to the back of the chapel, to the final group. “Group C. Will you accept his renouncement?”
I stare at the group across from me, the group that A and B are also glaring at, as if they’re anticipating a predictable yes. The young boys are confused, they’re glancing up at the older generations to make the decision for them--they’re not sure if it’s a test or not.
Suddenly, I’m beginning to think that too. Is it a test? Or is it a genuine renouncement? What will happen to the boy if all groups refuse him?
I’m now feeling more afraid for the girl. She might be too weak to have her renouncement now, but it will have to come sooner or later, and with Duncan putting all the blame on her, I’m not even sure that my group will allow her to join. Then again, I don’t know them well enough to assume that. I only know Ruth, and she did just save my life--so maybe there’s more defiance in group C than I first thought.
“Group C!” Duncan shouts. “I need an answer!”
“Yes,” one of the members says, he is an older man with white hair and a thick beard. “We accept.”
Both genders from A and B protest with glares. But the women of group C all hold small smiles around me, as though we are all thinking as one, no matter what gender we are. There is a dangerous silence that occurs, as Duncan processes the group’s answer.
Finally, he smiles. “The Lord has spoken. Andrew will now join group C. He is to be included in all activities, but will not be permitted to work night shifts.”
Duncan pulls Andrew to his feet, and the boy flicks his eyes open. Duncan pushes him by his shoulders, and Andrew begins walking down the steps of the stage, stumbling down the path between the snarling groups that act like they want to rip his throat out. He reaches the back in a daze and I look at him as he moves past me, joining the opposite side.
“The slut, Carol, will receive her renouncement tomorrow morning,” Duncan says. “I encourage all the women to refrain from making your decision until you have heard her speak. Always remember, it is the devil that possesses, but he only possesses the weak. Is Carol too weak to resist him? Is Carol too riddled with sin to continue our journey? Make your choice wisely. May the Lord be with you.”
“May the lord be with you,” all the women say in unison.
Duncan leaves the stage, exiting through the gap of a curtain around the side. We all wait as the supervisors and leaders begin to walk around the platform above us, making their way back to us.
I seize my chance at conversation while they are distracted. “Our group will accept her, won’t they?” I say to Ruth.
Ruth gives me a deep frown. “It’s always hard to tell. We have before. But, this is a difficult situation. Letting someone in always comes with a consequence. That consequence is that we will become even further away from ever joining group B.”
“So?” I say.
“The closer to B, the closer to A,” she says.
“I don’t understand,” I whisper. “Why would you want to join group A?”
“Because joining group A is the only way out of here,” she says. “They don’t keep people here forever. They are eventually released back into the outside.”
“At what cost?” I say. There must be a catch, I doubt Duncan would casually let people go without some kind of insurance. The first thing I’d do is go to the police. He must know that.
“I don’t know,” she says. “No one does. But it does happen. I’ve seen it. Some vanish discreetly, but when someone is given permission to leave, when their time here is fulfilled, he holds a public send off. And we watch the person be driven out of the gates. Either that or they become a leader.”
“How long have you been here?”
I read over her face. She isn’t a teenager, she’s a grown woman, possibly in her late twenties to early thirties. It’s unlikely that she was forced here by her parents, it’s even more unlikely that she would leave behind her life on the outside to join here voluntarily. So, how did she come to join?
It’s something I deeply want to know, but I don’t have the chance to ask because the leaders have joined us. I turn around, coming face-to-face with Madam Katelyn, who stares into me with her familiar, arrogant smirk.
“Group C,” she says. “Follow me.”
She turns, limping herself slowly up the steps as the other leaders gather around the top, waiting impatiently for her to leave. I’m the first member of the line, and I’m the first to exit the grim chapel.
The sky is darker than when I entered, the sun is finally setting behind the distant horizon of beyond the fence. I find it hard to believe that I’ve only been here a day--merely a few hours. It feels much longer, it feels timeless.
It was only the other night that I was sitting beside Nathan on that balcony--gazing at the gentle stars with my head tilted on his chest. It was only the other night that I danced, and I laughed, and I counted my blessings that I was lucky enough to have him in my life. It was only the other night that I was free. That I was whole. That I was oblivious to this secret society that would take in good people and make them bend their souls to obedience.
I notice that the other supervisors of group C are leading their own lines, and now it suddenly makes sense. We’re separated by dorms. I feel relief at the thought of Ruth being in the same dorm as me, along with the young teenage girl and other women of all ages.
We get halfway across the grounds, when suddenly, the line is halted. I peek around Madam Katelyn to see Elijah standing before her.
“Apologies for the interjection,” Elijah says. “But Pastor wants a word with Elizabeth.”
I stiffen at the sound of my name, my throat begins to squeeze tightly as I ponder over reasons as to what he would want to talk to me about.
“Take her,” Madam Katelyn says, disinterested either way.
Elijah nods at me, and I walk out of the line, keeping my eyes down as I succumb to the sudden summoning. Elijah begins walking in the opposite direction, and I match his footsteps as I drag myself besides him.
Once we’re around a corner of a building, he pauses, checking his surroundings.
“I thought you were taking me to Duncan?” I say.
“I am,” he says. “But first, there’s something you need to know.”