I was raised to believe in things you can’t see.
It is the foundation of everything. I am taught to accept the unacceptable. To embrace the terrifying.
Because I have a purpose. I have been trained for my calling for as long as I can remember. As an acolyte for the Gathering of the Sun, I am taught that my life isn’t my own. I worship. I serve. And when the time comes, I will greet my fate with open arms and a sin free heart.
People call us a cult.
We are judged. We are ridiculed and reviled. Pastor Carter tells me they will be lost when the end comes. So we hide ourselves away from their sick and dangerous world. And my soul is safe because I follow the path.
I am the perfect disciple. I am confident in my devotion.
Until doubt arrives wearing the face of a boy I never expected to love.
Bastian doesn’t follow the path. His destiny is his own. He paints me a picture of a beautiful world. His words contradict everything I have been told.
His scream pierced my heart and I knew what had happened. An irrevocable shift. Like an earthquake. Like the end of the world.
I waited outside listening to the cacophony of pain. The rise and fall of misery that came in waves. Bastian’s cries. Anna’s wails.
And then total and complete silence.
I took a breath and waited.
I closed my eyes and wished for the sun. It had always been my comfort. Reliable. But there was only darkness. Pitch black night that went on and on.
A door opened. Then it slammed shut. I could smell the subtle scent of wildflowers and shampoo that always lingered around Anna. I opened my eyes in time to see her run towards the house she shared with her father. I could hear her sobs and longed to go after her. Yet she never looked my way. She never sought me out. Our link had been fragmented.
That realization squeezed and contorted my heart. It shifted and strained into something unrecognizable.
In that moment I was filled with an awful self-loathing. I couldn’t have stopped it. Not really. I knew what each of us would be asked to do. My entire life had hinged on that one absolute fact. But since Bastian, I knew it didn’t have to be. That it shouldn’t be. I had rejected my Awakening.
I shivered at the memory of Pastor Carter’s righteous anger. In those seconds after my denial, he had looked like the worst kind of monster. And I had finally accepted everything Bastian had been telling me. I teetered over the cliff with nothing to brace my fall.
So David became the first. He made his choice. No one could have altered his plan. The ruined man that had arrived all those months ago had already been set on his course. He had come to The Retreat wanting the lies Pastor fed him. His heart was clouded by promises that would never be realized.
It’s not my fault.
I kept telling myself that. Yet, I felt guilty all the same. As if I was complicit in David’s fate and Anna’s anguish.
I could have done something…
I should have known…
I berated myself over and over. Pummeling my conscience into oblivion. My legs could barely support the weight of my shame.
Then he was there.
The air stirred around me as he invaded my space. My comfort and my calm.
His eyes red and puffy. His complexion ashen. But I could feel his rage. It tasted like a bitten tongue.
“Did you know?” His question was a demand. It was an accusation. But at its core, it was quaking, overpowering fear.
I shook my head, the words that would accompany my denial stuck in the back of my throat.
I hadn’t known. But I should have.
But my disgrace was my own. I couldn’t let him carry that burden. Not now. Not after David. Staring at the man I had come to love in all ways that mattered, I couldn’t imagine him coming back from this. Healing seemed like some far-off concept.
But there was steel in his bright blue eyes. A tightness to his mouth. And I knew that he was stronger than anyone gave him credit for.
He would burn this unbearable world to the ground and stand in the ashes.
Bastian’s gaze cut through me. “You didn’t?” I knew he had to ask again. He had to be sure. A betrayal of that magnitude would never be forgiven. He wanted to trust me. But this place had made a mockery of faith.
The silence inside the common room was louder than his voice. For the first time in my life, I hated it. I found no solace in the heavy presence of the others. I resented their mute acceptance.
I hated everything they were.
They had decided to cast me out. An exile of my own choosing, Pastor had said. And now they had taken something from the man I loved. Taken a piece of him that he would never get back.
But they wouldn’t take me. That I could give him freely. For once, the choice was well and truly mine.
“No, Bastian. I didn’t know. But I know now.” I took his hand. I squeezed it tight. I dug my fingers into his skin until he saw my truth. He’d bleed with it.
“I know now,” I repeated.
His face softened. Anger seeped away. His tears fell. One at a time. But he continued to stand. Holding himself up. Holding us both up.
There were cracks. But he wasn’t broken.
“I know now,” I whispered, my own cracks splintering me apart.
He lifted my hand to his mouth. Held it there. The barest of touches. And when he let me go, the ground opened up beneath us.
But we wouldn’t fall in.
“We have to go,” he said, his entire body shuddered and then stilled. The steel returned.
And still the silence…
Then I made a decision. One I wasn’t entirely sure of. One lacking in confidence but comprised of the deepest type of emotion.
And maybe that was the only faith I needed. A faith in him. A faith in us.
It washed away everything else.
“Then let’s go.” I wouldn’t smile. Neither of us could bear the facade of joy.
Instead we would face grief together.
Bastian took a shaky breath and pulled me to him. Crushing me to his chest his lips found mine. Bruising, not tender. He poured the horror of the past twenty-four hours into me. I swallowed it up.
We would leave. There was no other plan to make. No other choice but the one that unfolded before us.
We’d run as fast and as far as we could.
Away from the fire.
I would learn to live with the cold.