I will probably not share all of this, as I would ideally like to edit this old neglected novel for publication, but here is a little taste!
The Twelve, Chapter One
“You’re so different now. Someone I don’t recognize.”
I took in Ashley’s face and realized that she too was someone unrecognizable. It had been years since I’d seen her. Nearly ten, to be precise. And suddenly she was here, in front of me. But she wasn’t the little girl with the pigtails that I remembered. “I don’t know you either.”
“That’s exactly it. We were best friends, Lanie. Best. Friends.” Ashley twirled a long strand of hair around her finger and sighed. “I miss you. I miss hanging out. I miss going to school together. I miss all the things. I sneak up here all the time, wanting to see you, to talk to you. And this is the first time I’ve gotten you alone.”
“We could still hang out,” I replied, but it sounded lame even to my ears. And I knew it wasn’t true.
“The Sect has changed you. Ever since you left, you’ve been someone else. I’ve been watching you, this person I don’t know anymore. And I don’t want to know her. I want the old you.” A single tear trickled down her cheek.
I turned away, unwilling to watch but unsure how to defend myself. “It hasn’t changed me. It hasn’t.” My protest sounded weak even to me.
“You were never a follower. The Sect made you one.”
I could feel the eyes on the back of my neck before the person spoke. “There is nothing wrong with that.” Beaty’s voice was calm, authoritative. She placed a hand on my shoulder and forced me to move so that she stood between Ashley and I. “Absolutely nothing. Lanie is an upstanding citizen within The Sect. About to graduate from the education program. A strong future leader. And you, young lady, would be wise to follow her example rather than force her to follow yours.”
Ashley didn’t cower away from Beaty as I would have done, but rather, drew herself to her full height and looked Beaty straight in the eye. “I’m not the one forcing her to do anything,” she spat. “That honor belongs to you.”
I could see the fire in Beaty’s eyes as she grabbed Ashley around the arm and dug in her nails, pulling her forward. “I’m not sure you know who you’re talking to.”
Ashley kept her chin up, defiant. “I know exactly who I’m talking to. We all know who you are.”
“Then you know that women in The Sect should remain silent unless spoken to. Unless told to speak. You are out of line.”
I remained silent, in the background.
Beaty’s nails dug deeper into Ashley’s skin, but Ashley didn’t move an inch. “Fuck. You.” She spat at Beaty’s face.
Beaty took her free hand and swiped it angrily at her cheek before hauling Ashley, against protests, down the pathway towards the square. My mouth suddenly free, I jogged after them crying, “Wait, she doesn’t know any better, I can handle this, I can help her, I can…“
Ignoring me, Beaty chained Ashley to the stockade. “It’s too late for this girl, Lanie. You can’t save her.”
I shook my head, confused. “But God can save anyone. That’s what you taught me.”
“Not this one, Lanie. She’s different.”
Ashley hung limply, but her eyes still breathed fire. They bored into mine.
“I don’t understand.”
Beaty placed a stone in my hand. “She needs to be taught a lesson. She needs to know that she can’t go against The Sect. She needs to know that what she said is not okay.”
I looked down at the stone in my hand and then back up at Beaty. “I don’t understand,” I said again, weaker this time.
“Speaking against The Sect is a crime that can’t be tolerated. This girl will be stoned—and to prove your loyalty, you will be the first to throw.”
I felt the weight of the stone in my hand, more emotional the physical. Beaty took a step back, but I could still feel her breath on the back of my neck, her eyes boring into my skull. Ashley locked eyes with me, and for the first time I could see a flicker of fear behind the fire.
When my stone struck her flesh, that fire died. After the first stone it was easy. I found myself picking up stone after stone after stone as her flesh became bloody and raw. For her disrespect. For her disloyalty. For her anger. For going against The Sect. For going against me.
I didn’t stop throwing until I felt Beaty’s hand on my shoulder. “Good,” she whispered. “Well done, faithful servant.” With a step around me, Beaty moved forward and cut Ashley down. The fire inside her extinguished, Ashley crumbled to the ground and did not move. My hand dropped to my side, and I realized that I was the only one who had had to throw a stone; I had thrown so many, been so consumed, that no one else had joined in. I had faced my temptation and proved my loyalty all by myself. I was once again good in the eyes of God.
I turned around and walked away proudly, not waiting to see whether she lived or died, and went back to my hut and the life that I had earned, knowing that I had proved myself for one more day. I knew that I would never see Ashley again.
I didn’t know then to feel shame.
Back then, Ashley and I were best friends. We were in the same class, shared crayons, alternated weekend sleepovers at each other’s houses, the like. That day as we headed home from school, we drifted past the park like we did every other day.
“Let’s go swing!” Ashley grabbed me by the arm and dragged me towards the swing set. She didn’t really give me a choice.
“I need to tell Mommy I’m not coming home. I’m supposed to go straight home. I promised, when she told me I could go to school by myself.” I planted my sneakers in the ground and drew her to a halt.
“Come on,” she whined. “Just for a little bit.”
I looked at the swings and then back at Ashley. I knew Mommy would be mad, but I couldn’t resist. I let my backpack slide off my arm to the ground and joined Ashley on the swings. We were quiet, our legs pumping back and forth.
“Do you think we can touch the sky?” Ashley asked after a few minutes of silence.
I pumped a little harder. “Maybe?” Each time I swung up, I imagined that my feet were touching the clouds. The sun on my face, I closed my eyes to pretend I was bird and pumped and pumped and pumped my legs. I drove myself so high that chain went limp for just a second and I was in free fall. I squealed, and then, picturing that I really could fly, I jumped from the swing.
I was disappointed when my feet hit the ground. There was a minute there, when I was in the air, where it felt like I would go up instead of down. I sank into the dirt as Ashley landed beside me, giggling.
“That was fun!” I laid on my back in the dirt and she laid beside me.
“It was,” she answered, still laughing.
We joined hands and made snow angels in the grass. After another few minutes, I reluctantly admitted, “We should go home. I’ll bet Mommy’s worried.”
We sat up slowly and then crossed back to the sidewalk where we’d left our backpacks. I slid my arms into the straps of my bag much more slowly than I had taken them out and we trudged down the sidewalk, suddenly less eager to go home.
“We should do this every day,” Ashley said as the park disappeared behind us.
“That’d be fun. But I’ll have to ask Mommy. To make sure it’s okay.”
It was much too soon when we found ourselves standing in front of our houses. “So, can you come over tomorrow?” Ashley asked. “We can watch ‘Flash Forward’ and eat popcorn and stuff.”
We said goodbye, and I jogged up the steps. When I tried the front door, it was locked. I didn’t understand; Mommy was always home when I got home. I tried again, and then leaned over the railing into the bushes to look inside the front window. Everything was dark. I felt around my neck for the key that always hung there. I had never had to use it before—Mommy was always home. I was worried it wouldn’t work. But when I stuck it in the door, the knob turned right away.
“Mommy?” The lights were off as I stepped inside. “I’m home!”
There was no answer.
I flipped the light switch by the front door and dropped my backpack on the ground by the coatrack. “Mommy?” I tried again. “I’m sorry I’m late.”
When she didn’t answer, I decided she wasn’t home. I wondered where she might be, but I wasn’t really worried. I took off my shoes and then went into the kitchen to make myself a sandwich. Peanut butter and bananas and a little dab of sugar. But only a little. Mommy would be mad if I had too much. I sat down at the kitchen table and ate my sandwich slowly, trying to remember if I had any homework I was supposed to do. When I was done eating, Mommy still hadn’t returned from wherever she’d gone. I went to the fridge and poured myself a glass of milk and then downed it in three gulps. Still no Mommy. With no homework, I could read my new book; it was about a boy wizard and some sort of stone. Everyone at school was talking about it, but this was the first time I had been able to find a copy in the library. I went to get the book from my backpack and then trudged up the stairs. I was looking forward to snuggling in under my blankets and reading into the night. Or at least until Mommy came home. Then she might read to me, which was fun in a different way. She would give the characters different voices and make them come alive. It was my favorite part of the night.
I got to the top of the stairs, took a few steps, and found myself squishing into the carpet. I wrinkled my nose and took a step back, touching the carpet with my toes again. It was wet. The carpet wasn’t supposed to be wet. As I opened my mouth to call again, to see if Mommy was around, I heard water running in the bathroom—Mommy was home. Another step forward sent water up around my toes and soaked my socks. “Mommy?” I called, confused. I knocked on the bathroom door. “There’s water everywhere, Mommy.”
There was no answer.
“Mommy, open the door!” I knocked several more times, and then finally just opened the door. It was dark inside the bathroom. So dark, that I didn’t see at first. Mommy was in the tub, and the water was running, running over the sides and onto the floor. It was over the tops of my feet and still sloshing. “Mommy?” I whispered. “You need to shut off the water. You always tell me not to waste water.”
When she didn’t answer, I turned on the light. And then I could see, suddenly, and everything was much too bright.
Mommy was in the bathtub, but her arm was flopped over the side. Open. Red. There was bright red everywhere. The rug by the tub was pink where it used to be white. Red streaked the sides of the tub in the places the water didn’t flow. I reached out, slowly, to touch her. She didn’t move. “Mommy?” I shook her, softly at first, and then harder. Harder. Her head slipped from its resting place into the water, and I had to grab her to keep her from going under. “Mommy, I don’t know what to do!” I was crying as I shook her, again and again. “Mommy, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do,” I said over and over.
And then I remembered. In an emergency, you call 911. I dropped her into the water and ran down the hall into her bedroom, where I normally wasn’t allowed, but I was sure that she would make an exception this time. I dialed the number, just like they had shown me in school.
“911. What is your emergency?”
“It’s my mommy,” I cried, “she won’t wake up.”
“It’s okay, sweetheart,” the woman on the phone said. “Can you tell me your address so we can send someone to help your mommy?”
I told her the address, but I knew that it wasn’t okay. I didn’t know how she could say it was. I dropped the phone onto the bed and ran back into the bathroom. Mommy’s head was under water, her hair streaming out like seaweed. I lifted her head up and pressed my face to hers, willing her to wake up, willing her to make bunny noses with me, willing her to do anything. But she wouldn’t. She didn’t.
I reached out with my free hand, the hand that wasn’t behind Mommy’s head, and shut off the water. As I let her go and sank down onto the rug, I realized that the book I had been waiting so long to read was on the ground, in a puddle. Ruined.
I don’t know how long it was before the men in uniforms showed up. It could have been a few minutes; it could have been a few hours. When they did come, I thought they would make her wake up. But they didn’t. And it was only after they had pulled her out of the water and laid her down on the ground that somebody thought to take me out of the room. The man led me downstairs and set me down on the couch, and then he started talking on the phone. I remember sitting there for a really long time, uncertain as to what to do. People went in and out all around me, and then I looked up and there was a woman standing in front of me. She was tall, her dark brown hair wrapped on top of her head like a schoolteacher, and she peered down at me in front of her over the top of her glasses.
“Hello,” she said, shoving her glasses back up her nose.
I blinked up at her without answering.
“When an adult says something to you, you should respond.”
I blinked again silently, my eyes following the men in uniforms as they pushed a big bed on wheels behind the woman, a bed with a black bag on it. A body? Mommy?
The woman staring at me cleared her throat. “Let’s try this again. Hello.”
I watched as the men pushed the bed out the door and it shut behind them. The house was suddenly much quieter. I wondered where Ashley was. I wondered if my Mommy was ever coming back, if she would ever wake up.
The woman grabbed my chin and made me face her again. I cried out in surprise. “I said hello,” she repeated a third time.
“Hello,” I whispered.
“That’s better.” The woman perched on the edge of the chair across from me and folded her hands in her lap. “I’m Elizabeth Beaty.”
“I see your manners need some work,” she muttered under her breath. I flinched, but she continued, “I need you to pack up your things. Only the most important ones. You can take one suitcase.”
“Why?” I asked. “Where am I going?”
“You’re going to come live with me. At the home for children who don’t have homes.”
“I have a home,” I protested. “I live here.”
“I can’t leave! I have to stay here for when Mommy comes back!”
I tried to hide behind a couch pillow, but she took it away from me. “You don’t have a choice, child.” She checked her watch. “You have five minutes.”
I could tell from the look on her face that she wasn’t lying. I scrambled up the stairs, my already soaked socks slipping down around my ankles, and skidded into my room. I started throwing random things into a duffel bag I found in the bottom of my closet. A few books, pictures, pants and shirts. Underwear. My toothbrush. The thing I grabbed last was my teddy bear, a worn old stuffed animal that had spent every night on my pillow since I was two. Jamming him on the top of my other things, I forced the zipper closed and made my way back through the flood to where Beaty was waiting by the front door. She checked her watch and gave me a nod, the sort of nod a teacher gives when you do something right.
She took my hand and led me out the door and down the path to her car. I saw nothing around me but the black haze, the overwhelming knowledge that my mommy was never coming back. That I was never coming back.
I belonged to The Sect after that day.