The wine… Did they…?
I didn’t have much time to think about it. Jacob got me into the cabin and tossed me on my bed. As soon as he was gone, exhaustion swept over my body and I found that I couldn’t keep myself awake anymore. I think it was my body’s way of trying to process what had happened – my mind simply shut down and I drifted off into a dreamless sleep, my fear lying in wait in the back of my mind.
* * *
The next morning was incredibly painful. I had to work to pull myself out of bed. Every breath made my chest scream in agony. I had forgotten about the blood until I saw Tony’s face pale as he pointed at my chin. As I washed my face in the one cold sink in the cabin, my nerves began to hum again. Tony asked me repeatedly what happened, but I couldn’t think of a way to answer. I wasn’t even sure what had really happened last night. My brain was beginning to wonder if it was real or imagined. Somehow, I really didn’t want to know.
I noticed that everyone else was as exhausted as I was, albeit missing the bruises that were beginning to spread across my skin. As we were ushered out back around the campfire, I began to wonder what exactly our “counselors” had planned for the day. I hoped that it involved food, because I wasn’t sure how much longer I could go without it.
I noticed as we all gathered together that our group looked a little smaller than normal. I scanned the crowd, looking for my brother. He was there, at the other end of the circle. I would have gone over to him, but I could sense that the counselors had their eyes on me. It wouldn’t do me any good to stir up trouble.
“The cabin is missing,” A light voice breathed next to my ear. I turned in surprise and came face-to-face with a girl just about my age. She had long, dirty blonde hair fastened in a messy braid. She was pale and thin, but there was some muscle on her. She looked tough, and perhaps that was why she didn’t seem as exhausted and brain-dead as everyone else this morning.
“What cabin is missing?” I asked.
“Ruth,” she answered. Her face was stoic and if I hadn’t been looking for emotion, I wouldn’t have found it. But I stared carefully into her eyes and I could sense a bit of concern hidden in their green depths. “It’s my little sister’s cabin. She’s not here.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. “My little brother is here, too,” I answered. She didn’t respond, so I cleared my throat awkwardly and began again. “Where do you think your sister went?”
The girl shook her head. “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.”
Malachi’s voice wormed its way into my head just then as he began his speech. I wanted to block it out and continue talking to the girl – something about her made me feel at ease, perhaps because she radiated power and control – but my attention was secured pretty quickly as he ran through the list of the day’s activities… if you could call them that.
“Our ancestors in the Holy Land had to make many a pilgrimage to return to the glory of the one true God. It is only right, then, that we, too, make a pilgrimage.” Malachi’s face was shining and a hardness glinted in his eyes that I didn’t quite understand. He continued, “Over the next few days, each cabin will make a journey to another campsite. This will help us all to bond with the Lord and learn to serve him effectively. In fact, this morning our Ruth cabin already went on its expedition. Undoubtedly, they have already seen the glory of the Lord!”
The counselors murmured a collective “Amen.” I noticed the girl next to me stiffen – I had a hunch that she was the prototypical overprotective older sister.
Now, weak and hurt though I was, I was still a young boy. And, like many young boys before me, I had the unavoidable urge to impress the enigma that was standing beside me. There was something about her that I couldn’t ignore, something that felt suffocating and stiff in my chest, and the only way to let out those feelings was to do something unimaginably stupid.
I raised my hand slowly. It took a moment for Malachi’s eyes to fall on me, and his eyes narrowed in return. He was flanked by Rebecca and Jacob, who both stiffened upon noticing me. Rebecca’s face remained flatly pleasant but Jacob’s expression darkened considerably. Still, I held my hand firm and waited for Malachi to make his move.
He smiled at me. “Yes, David? Do you have something to say?”
There was a threat concealed somewhere in there – not so much in the words but in the way they dripped out of his mouth, threatening to burn me like acid, should I step out of line. I gulped down my fear as I thought not only of the girl beside me, but of her sister and my brother. This was too important to let go.
“Yes, sir. I was just wondering, why we can’t all go on this ‘pilgrimage’ together?” My voice was saccharine and nearly made me sick, but it was worth the effect. Malachi didn’t seem to sense the anger and fear under my voice, and instead was caught off-guard by my supposed innocence. His smile became more genuine as he answered.
“That’s an excellent question, David. Thank you for asking it. We believe that you’ll be able to bond better with your cabin-mates if we make this a cabin-exclusive activity.” With that, Malachi continued to expound on the glories of God and camaraderie. The girl next to me let out a breath that I hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
“You’re crazy,” she answered. There was a slight shake to her voice, but her posture remained straight and strong. It was extraordinary, really. I was still admiring her when she added, “I thought you’d have learned your lesson last night.”
My eyes went wide as the shock registered, but I continued staring ahead, hoping that no one would notice our clandestine exchange. “You saw?”
A nearly imperceptible nod. “I saw the counselors calling to you. No one was paying attention, so I followed you guys and watched. I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything.”
“It’s okay,” I whispered back. She’d seen that. Did that mean…
“What do you think of Malachi’s answer to your question?” She asked me, interrupting my thought.
“Bullcrap,” I said a tiny bit too loudly. No one seemed to notice, though, and the girl’s face broke out into a grin.
“Good. I think, then, we are on the same page about this camp.”
I grunted my assent. It was obvious to me now, especially with her practically voicing my opinion: something was deeply and seriously wrong with this place.
“What do you think we should do about it?” She asked.
To be honest, I wasn’t really sure how to answer that question. After all, we were only two kids at the mercy of these counselors and Malachi. Even if I could feel the urgent need to do something, what could be done? I hesitated, mulling over the question. I needed a push in the right direction, which is exactly what I got a moment later.
“The next cabin to leave will be Cabin Abraham,” announced Malachi. My heart seemed to stop as my eyes shot towards Charlie. He was scanning the crowd uncertainly, looking for me. We locked eyes and I could see the fear plain on his face.
His cabin was led away. As they walked, I saw that they were given the Eucharist again. It seemed to me that they were given more wine this time, but I couldn’t be sure. My heart was sinking and my breath was ragged as I answered.
“We need to go after them.” I said.
I saw her lips twitch a little, trying to hold back a smile. “I was hoping you would say that, David, because that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
“What’s your name, by the way?” I asked. For whatever reason, at that exact moment, I NEEDED to know. If I didn’t, I thought I’d have a full-fledged panic attack right there, as my brother was being led away into the woods to God-knows-where.
“Tammy. So, David, how do you suppose we get around the counselors and Malachi?”
I didn’t have an answer for that one.
So there we both stood, brainstorming how to escape our predicament. Our captors. That’s what they were, I realized. They were captors because I didn’t feel free to move about, to leave if I wanted to. Even if they were only binding us with fear, they were still binding us.
Malachi was droning on as again as the counselors got ready to hand out the Eucharist once more. Next to me, Tammy hissed, “We need to create a distraction. That’s the only way that we’re going to get out of here.”
A wonderful idea, if only there was a way to do it without drawing attention to ourselves in the process.
Fortunately, someone decided to create the diversion for us, entirely independent of our scheming.
Maybe the blood on my face that morning had really spooked him, got him thinking about the strangeness of the camp. Or maybe he’d been thinking it all along, and after so many hours of being exhausted and hungry he had had enough. Either way, Tony decided that he wanted to leave and nobody was going to stop him.
He interrupted Malachi’s prayers and the distribution of the Eucharist with a loud shout.
“This is f***ing BULLS***!” He screamed.
Tammy and I froze in unison as the entire camp went silent. Malachi’s eyes slowly sought out the perpetrator. It wasn’t difficult to do, considering that Tony was fuming and his face was beet red. He screamed again, “What the f*** does this have to do with God?! You won’t give us anything to eat and you won’t tell us what’s going on, what the f***? I’m going home, you f***ing FREAKS.”
I had never heard the f-word so many times in my life. Sure, I’d managed to hear a few swear words in my time, despite my parents’ best efforts to keep us kids pure. But something of that caliber had simply never crossed my mind. I could tell the other kids felt the same by the murmurs that suddenly erupted around us.
“Did he just say…?”
“There’s no way…”
“How can he…”
But not all of the mutterings were disapproving. I didn’t have time to voice any of my opinions before Tony started marching up to Malachi.
“I’ve had it with you and your bulls***!” He shouted. I wondered briefly what the hell he thought he was going to do when he answered my question: he lunged at the giant man, his teeth bared and his hands hooked into claws.
The counselors were on him in a second, their attention diverted from the crowd of children watching in petrified horror. I heard Tony scream and felt the blood creeping out of my face. I remembered what they’d done to me just for giving my little brother the Host to eat… I didn’t want to know what was going to happen to Tony.
I was surprised when Tammy gripped my arm. “David, now. We have to go now.”
My body was as still as stone as I looked Tammy full on. Her eyes bore into me, her muscles tensed and ready. This was it, this was the moment. But it terrified me, somehow. What if we failed? What would we do? What would happen to us?
Tammy’s voice broke me out of my fear-induced prison. “This is our only chance, David.” Her eyes questioned me.
My body answered.
I turned and walked quickly and confidently towards the edge of the clearing. Tammy strode beside me, her eyes darting back and forth through the crowd, trying to determine if we had been noticed. As we slipped past the trees and into the forest, we both breathed a sigh of relief. The chaos of Tony’s breakdown was still echoing from the campsite, meaning that we were safe for now.
“Now” was the operant word, however. “We don’t have long,” I said, grabbing Tammy by the hand as we ran through the trees in the direction we’d seen Charlie and his cabin-mates go. “They’ll notice I’m gone because I gave them trouble yesterday. We have to find Charlie and your sister before then.”
And so we ran.
* * *
Now, I no longer believe in God. But I do believe in hell. I believe because those few minutes before we managed to reach our siblings were hell incarnate. Each agonizing second stretched into an eternity that I lost myself in. Even now, there are still parts of myself sunk in those minutes, those minutes before life changed.
Eventually, the patterns of sunlight began to shift and I realized that we were coming up on another clearing. Tammy and I slowed our progress, the gaps in the trees revealing four counselors standing in the clearing. The campers from Cabin “Abraham” seemed to be sitting on the ground and praying. No, not sitting, I thought in confusion as I neared the edge of the clearing. No, they were lying down… was this some kind of exercise?
And then my stomach lurched and I felt Tammy’s hand clamp over my mouth, forcing my scream back down my throat.
Blood. Blood everywhere.
The little bodies were lying on the forest floor, all right, but they were eerily still, and it only took a few seconds to realize they weren’t breathing. Their necks and chests were stained with blood, the sticky substance already beginning to congeal. My eyes filled with terrified tears as I looked at all those little bodies – the kids couldn’t have been more than seven or eight. Thankfully, most of their eyes had slipped shut, but some still hung open, the color having already dulled and glazed.
Tammy’s iron grip held me in place until the counselors began to walk back to the original campsite. We kept ourselves hidden in a particularly thick copse of trees as their footsteps faded away, their low voices drifting towards us. What were they talking about? Did it matter?
I think, at that point, I was still in shock from what I’d seen. My mind must have been protecting me from the inevitable question that bubbled somewhere deep within me. But I couldn’t hide it away forever, and all too soon the name burst through my spitless lips.
I ran into the clearing with Tammy close on my heels, my eyes dragging from one still body to the next. Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh, God, no. The closer I got to the center of the clearing, the worse the pain in my heart, until a sharp keening began to emanate from my throat.
He was one of the last. I found him towards the very center of the clearing, facedown in the dirt. I recognized him by his vibrant blue t-shirt – one of his favorites.
I knelt down next to him, my brain not daring to process the truth in front of it. Very, very carefully I turned him over. My brain was still numb as I saw the deep slash across his throat, blood so red it was almost black painting his pale skin. My hands were unnaturally steady as I yanked off my own shirt and wrapped it around his tiny neck. I couldn’t believe it, I just couldn’t, no, not my precious little brother, no.
I’m so glad I didn’t.
Because Charlie’s eyes fluttered. And his chest shifted ever so slightly. My hand fumbled towards the side of his neck, feeling desperately through the blood for his pulse. I almost screamed when I found it.
He was still alive. In spite of everything, Charlie was still f***ing ALIVE.
I gathered him in my arms, talking to him in a low voice, urging him to stay awake. In reality, I had no idea what I was doing, only that I didn’t want Charlie to slip away, not while I held him in my arms. I spun around to find Tammy so that we could get out of that hellhole, but she wasn’t behind me.
My eyes scanned the clearing wildly until hey came across her prone form, kneeling at the edge of the trees, a tiny body in her arms.
My heart sank again. Oh, God. Tammy’s sister.
It was then that I heard a commotion coming from the other campsite. F***, f***, they knew we were gone, F***. I ran over to Tammy, stumbling over bodies as I went. It sickened me to step on dead children like that, but I didn’t have time for sentiment or morality. I only had time to get out of there, to help Charlie, to help Tammy.
When I reached her, she was staring down at her sister. Her little sister had brown hair and large, staring eyes. She was one of those whose eyes were opened even in death. Perhaps she hadn’t drunk enough of the wine to be drugged out of her mind when they came for her. The thought made me sick, but not as sick as the thought of what would happen to us if we didn’t get the f*** out of there.
“Tammy, they’re coming, we have to go.”
Tammy’s eyes were broken – there’s no better way to describe them. They’d shattered apart the moment she saw the slash across her sister’s throat. Her hand was brushing through her sister’s hair and she seemed unaware of all the blood she was collecting on her fingertips. Her hand trailed down to her sister’s neck. A small, gold, heart-shaped necklace hung there with a delicate grace that contrasted harshly with the jagged cut in her flesh.
“TAMMY!” I shouted. It didn’t matter now how loud we were because they were coming for us anyway. Tammy silently shook her head, tears finally spilling out of her eyes. She wouldn’t tear her eyes away from her little sister. I took a deep breath and gave it one last shot.
“Tammy, we have to leave NOW. I know it hurts, I know, but your sister wouldn’t want you to die like this. Please, Tammy, we have to leave, we have to go!”
Tammy squeezed her eyes shut for just a moment and I saw her fighting with herself. I could hear footsteps crashing towards the clearing and I imagined Malachi’s hulking form tearing through the forest. I was about to leave her there when her eyes snapped open, glued back together with the firm resolve that I had seen there earlier. She ripped the necklace from her sister’s throat and stood up, letting the limp body drop to the forest floor.