"Abomination!" The shout resounded through the chapel, the word made more fearful by the visage of the man who bellowed it. Tall and gangly, his skin was mottled by years in the sun, yet curiously taut considering his skeletal frame. Heavy eyebrows, incongruently dark in comparison to his thinning gray hair, shadowed eyes that gleamed with a psychotic light, adding to the threat of his appearance.
Even the most stalwart of those among the assembly felt stirrings of dread and fear as their leader, Gideon, stepped down from the pulpit and snatched the sheet away to reveal a man tied to the table.
The man was nude but conscious. A ball gag kept him from speaking and a strap around his forehead and one around his neck, held his head securely. Likewise, his arms were restrained with two straps on each arm. One at the wrist and another just about the elbow. Two thicker straps held his chest and abdomen tight to the thick wooden slab that made up the top of the table.
His legs were spread wide, held fast in place with four straps per leg.
Evidence of the man's terror was clear in his wide-opened eyes, arms that strained and twisted at the restraints and a body that trembled uncontrollably. The whimpers that came from his throat were an accompaniment to the scratching from his fingernails on the wood beneath him
This was the first demonstration of power from the newly ordained leader of the cult. Years ago, Gideon was found on the banks of the river by the previous leader. He was barely alive, having been shot and thrown into the river to die.
But fate had other plans. He survived. The old leader, Abraham Daughn, pronounced as Dawn, brought Gideon into his home, had him nursed back to health and the community accepted him as one of their own.
It hadn't taken Gideon long to realize what he'd lucked into. He'd bided his time and became the devoted right hand of the old Father, acted to carry out Father's orders and serve the people as Father ordered. And all the while, he watched and learned and sowed the seeds he wanted to see grow, the seeds of hate, discontent and isolationism.
Now the old Father was gone and the people answered to him. He was Lord and Master here and he'd waited for the moment when he demonstrated to them his power. This was the moment when he demanded their devotion. Complete and without question. Those who did not give willingly what he demanded from them would be dealt with, swiftly and without mercy.
Gideon gestured to the man imprisoned on the table. "This spawn of Satan was welcomed into our community with open arms. He masqueraded as a child of God, all the while seeking to subvert the minds of our youth with his sexual deviance, to preach a false doctrine. To try and make our young people believe that homosexuals were children of God.
"And when he found that one weak mind, he seduced it with promises of love and freedom. He promised to take one of our children to a place where homosexuality could be freely practiced, where it was accepted for men to have sexual relations with men."
Gideon paused and looked at the man strapped to the table. "He took our charity, our love and what did he do? He tried to turn our young men into deviants. Abominations against God."
Voices started to be raised, at first murmurs and then growing to shouts as Gideon continue to condemn the prisoner. It wasn't long before the anger and hate filled the church like the smoke of a burning censer, thick and noxious.
There were shouts for the man's death. One then another until within minutes many voices were raised. Gideon let them work themselves into a frenzy and then raised both hands. "Listen to me brothers and sisters."
There was immediate silence. "God came to me, spoke to me. He tests not just our loyalty but our commitment and compassion. He tested me to find a way to cast out the evil in this man's soul, to wipe out the stink of aberration and set him upon the path of the righteous."
It was clear his flock was not enthralled by his words, but that didn't concern him. He was, after all, leading them where he wanted them to go. Soon they would cheer, call him a merciful father, a man of God and a leader to be admired.
"Therefore, I have decided that this man shall be spared the sentence of execution by beheading. Instead, he shall be castrated to ensure his perverted desires will no longer be acted upon. Once healed, he will serve in a role I design for his particular skills and abilities."
Gideon looked to one side. "Let us begin."
Two men walked to the table, standing along the backside, so as not to mar anyone's view. Everyone knew who they were. Edmund Tolbert was a retired doctor, and Howard Reston, a veterinarian.
Edmund placed a doctor's case between the spread legs of the victim, opened it and started removing items. Towels and gauze pads, a pair of what looked like thick tongs with sharp teeth and a long slim blade that gleamed.
Edmund held the knife as Howard picked up the tongs, lifted the victim's penis and stretched it up tight. The guttural howl from the victim as the teeth of the tongs bit into his flesh were mild compared to the sounds of agony that spilled from him when Edmund began to cut.
Blood splattered both men and the victim, quickly gathering on the table and then running off into the floor. Gideon took note of the eyes that turned away from the sight, and those that were transfixed and smiling. His soldiers made themselves known without speaking a word.
Satisfied, he turned his attention back to what was taking place, already considering which of his female parishioners would enjoy the benefits of his jubilation. The reign of Abraham was over. Now Gideon ruled.
Flashes of blinding light. Deafening bursts of sound. What the hell was this? He couldn't see or hear long enough to figure it out. Was he alive or on the descent to hell? He didn't know. All he knew was his team was down to two men. He and the man he carried, forcing his legs to take another step and then another.
"Hang on, buddy," he grunted the words and kept moving. There was no answer from the man in his arms. "You hear me? Stay with me, bro."
"Hurts." It wasn't much of an answer, but at least it told him the man still lived, and in desperation, he reached for the sound. It was the one recognizable thing in his reality. He needed to hold onto it. But the voice faded in and out, right along with his vision.
The only constant was agony. Pain like he'd never experienced, never imagined, and pain he'd do about anything to escape. Hayes tried to will it away, but he didn't have control of his own body or his own thoughts. His body seemed determined to stop. Stop moving, stop thinking. Stop breathing.
His heartbeat suddenly hammered so loud it drowned out what sounded like weapon's fire and an engine screaming. What was that? Where was he? Was he in transport? Another gripping spasm of pain had his heart speeding up so fast he felt like it was trying to pound its way out of his chest. He could barely breathe.
Something clamped on his face, covering his nose and mouth, and he sucked in the cooled air greedily. The much-needed oxygen provided mental clarity, even if his vision was not yet in focus. He didn't know how they'd managed, but either he was in a military transport, or he'd died and this was his journey into death.
Death wasn’t his destination. He figured that out from the voices. He could feel the medics tearing at his clothing, talking about his wounds. He tried to push their hands away. "Riggs. Take care of Riggs."
"We've got him Master Chief. He's right beside you. Look to your left."
Sure enough, when he turned his head, he could make out a body. He squinted and could make out the features. Riggs. He reached out and placed his hand on Riggs' shoulder. "Stay with me, bro. I'll get you home. God as my witness, I'll get you home."
He saw the medic inject Riggs, and a split second later felt the sting of a needle in his own arm. Something warm and almost suffocating pulsed through his veins, and it wasn't long before it started turning his body to a paralyzed slab of meat. It smothered not just the pain but his ability to stay conscious as well, and he needed to stay awake, to keep Riggs alive. "Hold on, Riggs. I got you, buddy, I got you."
He felt whatever he was riding in bounce and jar. His head spun when he tried to lift it and look around. Why didn't anything make sense? Was he dreaming? Where was he? What was happening?
He lost touch with everything, welcoming the darkness, but unlucky man that he was, the darkness shoved him back into the light. He became aware of the steady chuff of chopper rotors and the vibration of an engine. Just then, Riggs opened his mouth and howled.
"Whoa, hold on, brother." Hayes' eyes flew open and he felt for his teammate. "Don't you worry, brother. I'll get you home."
It was Hayes's task to see Riggs safely home, to fulfill a promise they made to one another when they first met, in basic training. No matter what, if either of them were seriously injured, wounded, or dead, they would wade through hell to carry the other home.
Pain caused Hayes to bite back a groan. He hadn't had a home since the day he enlisted. He'd spent more time with Riggs Walker on his family's ranch than anywhere else the last twenty years. Home, the place where you belong, was something that didn't have much meaning to him anymore and probably never would.
Hayes lost the right to call anything or anyone home a long time ago and became a man who knew way more about killing than living. His family was the Navy, his brothers, the men he served with. And women? They were just a temporary diversion now and again. Love had no place in his life.
Like home, he'd lost the right to love a long time ago.
Sophie stood in front of the kitchen sink with a steaming mug of coffee cupped between both hands, her eyes focused on the sights beyond the panes of the window. The rising sun illuminated the land, forming a glowing halo behind the plants and trees as the sun rose slowly higher.
I wish we could watch the sunrise together every day.
The whisper of those long-ago-spoken words had her blinking back tears. She shouldn't be surprised to be revisited by this ghost today. Particularly today. Most of the time, her past stayed where it belonged. In the past. But today, on her son's birthday, it resurfaced with enough power to bring her to tears.
I wish we could watch the sunrise together every day.
There was a time when she feared she would hear that whisper every time she watched a new day dawn. It'd held her prisoner for so long, and for years she wondered why she couldn't move beyond it. Was it the one thing, the one pain she needed to hold onto tight-fisted? That reminder to herself that her own choices had dictated the course of her life? Did she hear that whisper so she'd be reminded to be grateful for her life, or to mourn the life she'd been denied?
Over time, with a life that became more full and happiness that blossomed, she learned to let go, to accept it as a pain that might come again, a reminder of what she'd lost. Maybe that was the way it was supposed to be when you lost the person you love. People deal with grief in many ways. She was aware of that but didn't believe she'd ever allowed her grief and loss to keep her from experiencing happiness. She was truly grateful for all her blessings. Like being able to stand here in a home, she'd paid for herself, watching the sunrise on a new day, knowing her son was happy, healthy, and safe. That he'd grown up never feeling threatened or unprotected.
She wondered how many other people right now were watching the new day break. Did they see the dawn as a promise of potential? Or were they so mired in their misery they'd forgotten how to see each day as an opportunity for miracles? How many felt so alone they couldn't see the beauty?
Goodness knows, there'd been days she'd found herself among that sad group. Once upon a time, she'd lost her way. She thanked every power in the Universe that she'd been saved. Not by a force from outside of herself, but from something within. Something that came to life inside her, and made her realize how blessed she was.
"Morning." The sleepy voice made her smile, and she turned to look at the major component of her salvation. Her son, Cole.
"Happy birthday." She took a sip from her coffee and set the mug on the countertop. "Hungry?"
"Coffee. Just coffee. And thanks."
"So, eighteen at last. Does the world feel different now that you're finally eighteen?" Sophie poured him a cup of coffee, added a generous helping of sweet cream, and took the cup to the table where he'd taken a seat.
He smiled when she handed it to him. "I still feel like regular old me."
Sophie sat and sipped from her mug. "Hmm, I don't think regular or old are applicable, but hey, that's just me. So, what do you want for your birthday dinner, or do you have plans with your friends?"
"I wouldn't plan anything with them on my birthday. You know that. This is our day."
"Am I taking that to mean you want the standard birthday meal?"
"You know it. I've been thinking about it all week."
"Then you only have to wait for dinner time. You know, this morning I realized it's just a few weeks until graduation. Will you be sad to see school come to an end?"
Sophie smiled. Cole was a young man of few words. In that respect, he was a lot like his father. "Are you sure about enlisting, Cole?"
"I am. Don't try to talk me out of it, mom."
"That wasn't my intent. I just want to make sure you've thought it out."
"I have. It's what I want to do."
"Then it's what you should do."
"And what about you?" Cole leaned forward, his forearms on the table and his cup between his hands. "What will you do?"
"What I do now."
"But you'll be alone." She could see the concern in his hazel eyes, and for a moment, she saw a flash of another face. Sometimes he reminded her so much of his father, it caused a pang in her heart. But she pushed that aside. This wasn't about her. It was about Cole and what he wanted for his life.
"I'll be fine. I always knew you'd grow up, and now you have. Sure seems like it happened too fast, but here we are. And you know I want you to be happy, Cole, and live a life of your choosing. I'm proud of who you are, and I'll support whatever you choose to do."
"Even being a SEAL?"
Sophie thought about it for a moment. This was the first time he'd brought up the subject. "That's not an easy path from what I understand, and very few people make it. Are you sure that's what you want to try for?"
"Not try. Do. I'm going to be a SEAL. I've talked to the recruiter about it, and I know what I need to do on the tests – written and physical, and I've been working toward it all year, mom. I'm ready, or I will be, and I'm going to make it."
"I don't doubt it. And again, if that's what you want, then go for it. Like I've always said, don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't do something. Go after what you want."
He nodded and studied the cup he twirled around and around on the table. Sophie drank her coffee and watched in silence. Her son was not the kind of person to make a decision quickly. He was a deliberate young man who weighed the pros and cons and tried to reach a decision he felt was based on what was right and best for everyone involved.
Cole was relieved by his mother's words. This decision had been particularly difficult because it meant he had to walk away from her. Sophie was all the family he had. Well, that wasn't technically true. His grandmother– her mother and step-father were alive, but he hadn't grown up around them, and they didn't visit often, so he didn't have a firm emotional attachment to them.
He didn't know much about his mother's parents. Her childhood wasn't something she liked to talk about, and he got the idea there were parts of it that weren't good. According to his mother, her father died shortly after she moved to Collier's Creek, and her mother remarried a couple of years after that. She and her new husband, Stanley, spent a few years renovating the old farmhouse where Sophie spent her childhood. Once that was done, Stanley decided he wanted to split their time between the farm in Georgia and an estate he'd inherited from his grandmother in England.
Cole's grandparents typically spent a total of six months in the United States each year. They'd arrive right after Labor Day and stay through Thanksgiving and then come back at the end of March for a couple of months. Sometimes Sophie and Cole would go to the farm for holidays, but they never spent the night there, they always stayed at a hotel on the highway outside of town. Even the short time they were there for dinners seemed hard on his mother and he was always relieved when they left. She just never seemed happy there.
Cole asked her once why that was, and she would only say there were too many sad memories there. He never asked what she meant, and she'd never volunteered the information, but he was pretty sure he knew. When she was there, she thought about his dad, the boy she'd loved who had left her behind and broken her heart.
It was okay with him if they didn't go to his grandparents for the holidays. Occasionally, they would come to Collier's Creek, but more often than not, Cole and Sophie spent the holidays with their friends in Collier's Creek.
Cole's grandmother said she would try to come to see him graduate, but he didn't expect her to show up. She usually headed back to England before Memorial Day. She'd probably just send him some money and a nice card, and that was fine with him. It wasn't that he didn't like her, he just didn't know her very well.
His mom talked to his grandmother often, and he could tell there were times when she would love to see her more, but like it was with everything else, she never complained. That's how she was, his mom. She looked after everyone – him and the people who lived in their community, the folks she worked with in the farming co-op. Sophie took care of people.
Cole had recently been hit with that realization. She took care of everyone else. No one took care of her. Not even him. Here he was, itching to leave, to enlist, to become a Navy SEAL and see the world. He'd had more sleepless nights wrestling with this decision than any other of his life.
Thinking about that decision had him asking. "If I go, will you feel I'm abandoning you?"
"Oh, Cole, no," Sophie reached across the table for his hand. "Not at all. Look at me."
He finally looked up and saw her smiling. That eased him a bit. "I want you to have the life you want," she looked directly at him, locking gazes. "I want you to see everything you want to see and experience all you dream of. I know you love me, Cole. I've known that every day since the moment I felt you stir inside me. You and I are connected, and nothing can ever take that away. Not distance or time.
"I've loved every moment we've had and will cherish it forever, but I want you to do what's right for you. I've always known the day would come when you'd set out on your own path, and I am behind you a thousand percent. So, if this is it, if this is what you want – or just want to see if you're meant for, then do it."
"You wouldn't kid a kidder?" He asked the question they'd used since he was old enough to talk.
Sophie smiled. "Never. Now, do you want breakfast? I have a full day ahead, but am happy to fix you something to eat before I get started."
Cole didn't question her sincerity. One thing he could count on was his mother's honesty. She'd never once lied to him. He felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Since he was eight and she told him his father had left to join the Navy, and she never heard from him again, he'd had his mind set to enlist, too.
He'd enlist, and then he'd find his father. Alive or dead, he'd find him, and if he was alive, Cole would ask the question his mother didn't have an answer for. Why did his father leave them and never return? Why did he turn his back on Sophie and never even write or call? Had he found out that he'd gotten her pregnant? Did he care? Had he not loved Sophie? Cole needed to hear those answers from his father. And based upon what he heard, he might just need to beat the man who fathered him to a bloody mess.
"Hey, earth to Cole," his mother's voice snapped him back to attention. "Breakfast?"
"No. I'm good. Would it be okay if I took the car today? It's Jimmy's day to drive, but his car needs a tire, and he doesn't have the money, so he's without wheels until he can find enough odd jobs to make the money."
"Sure. And if he's serious about earning, I might know of something. Dan Jenkins mentioned that he's going to be doing the spring cut on his alfalfa this weekend, and he always needs extra hands."
"Does he have room for two? I'd like to make some extra."
"Oh? Got something special planned for graduation?"
"No, just want to build up my savings account, so I'll have plenty for bus fare to come home when I get leave. Will you ask Mr. Jenkins? For Jimmy and me."
"I'll do that today."
"You bet. Now I have to get a move on, so I'll see you later."
She stood, rinsed out her coffee cup, and then walked over to the table to kiss Cole on top of the head. "Have a good day. I love you."
"I love you, Mom. See you later."
She left the room, and Cole looked in the direction of the kitchen door. The thin curtain covering the glass panes in the top half were parted enough for sunlight to stream in, displaying tiny particles that floated slowly in the stream of light.
He thought about his life to this point and the people in it. He had a lot of friends, most of them casual, but a few he knew he could always count on. He'd never been in love. Not that he hadn't had girlfriends, he just knew he'd never fallen in love. Maybe he wouldn't ever. Look what love had done for his mom.
Maybe love wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Perhaps he'd focus on his mission and on becoming what he had always dreamed of. A Navy SEAL. If he could attain that, he wouldn't wish for more. Except knowing why his father had never even wanted to set eyes on him.