"But consorting with these pious elders, chaste dames, and dewy virgins were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame. It was strange to see that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints." -Nathanial Hawthorne, "Young Goodman Brown" *** Cassie knew what the red envelope meant as soon as it fell through the mail slot.
She held it in two fingers, as if it might catch on fire. When her mother saw it she practically squealed, throwing her arms around Cassie in an enormous hug. "I'm so proud of you," she said. "It's not a big deal," said Cassie. "Everyone gets one sooner or later." But her voice trembled a little anyway, and she twisted a curl of hair around one finger while she waited for her heart to stop fluttering.
"I know that," her mother said. "But I'm proud of what it means. You're all grown up." The letter was identical to the ones that had been sent to her friends previously: black ink on red paper, with the town seal at the bottom.
It was her formal invitation to her first Lodge meeting. Kids who grew up here usually got their invitations a little after their 18th birthday. Cassie's birthday had come and gone months ago, and for a while she'd thought maybe she wasn't going to get one.
But here it was. She ran upstairs to get ready for practice and tucked the invitation into the frame of her bureau mirror. Meetings were held at the big, rambling Lodge House, where everyone gathered on the last day of each month (New Year's Eve this time). She wasn't sure exactly what they all did up there; Lodge meetings were secret from non-members, even family.
Mom (who had gotten her invitation three months after they moved here) wouldn't talk about it, and the other kids in town said it was the same with their own parents. Nobody seemed particularly interested in ferreting out the secret, either. "It's probably just boring grown-up stuff," as a neighborhood playmate had put it years ago.
And anyway, they would all eventually get their own invitations and find out for themselves, one day. More than likely it was just the same as the Elks or the Soroptimists, talking about charity or town history or something like that, Cassie thought as she changed. It didn't really matter what the meetings were about, anyway.
What mattered was that you belonged. She thought about the coming New Year as she slid into her cheerleader uniform. This year would be the end of high school, the beginning of college, and her first time on her own. It might be a year for other first-time things as well, she thought, as she removed the earrings Steve had given her for Christmas and put his varsity letter jacket on.
But she put that thought away almost immediately, as she always did. She skipped down the stairs and kissed her mother on the cheek. Mom, elbow-deep in dishwater, blinked at the sight of the uniform. "Well look at you. Aren't you on break from school?" "Yes, but Coach Rayner still wants squad practice once a week.
She says we got too rusty over the summer and she doesn't want a repeat of that time we dropped Marie. I'll be home by dark, okay?" She banged out the door and down the walkway, waving to the milkman (Mr.
Aron). It was a warm day for December, full of the drip-drip-drip of melting snow, and she waved at everyone else she knew as she passed the fading tinsel of their Christmas trees in each window. There was the old school librarian who lived on the corner (Ms. Baylock, retired), and the nice man around the block who helped Mom with the plumbing whenever it acted up (Mr. Poelzig).
Cassie hummed a few bars of some old Christmas carol as she walked. She could never remember what song it actually was, but it always came back to her this time of year. She loved the holidays, even this burnt-out week between Christmas and New Year's when most people start to get depressed.
To Cassie it was a quiet, cozy time, when she felt most like a kid again. Marie was already at the bus stop, and as soon as she saw Cassie coming she grinned like the Cheshire Cat. She was wearing her own uniform, as well as her ex-boyfriend Glen's varsity jacket. Marie had broken up with Glen on Halloween but refused to give his jacket back. She wore it every day simply because she knew the rest of the team teased him about it. Before Cassie could even say hello Marie blurted out, "Did you get it?" Cassie blinked.
"My invitation? Yes, this morning. How did you know?" "Mom is Lodge secretary. She told me she'd sent it out. Oh no!" Marie actually covered her mouth. "I'm not supposed to tell who the officers are. Oh, but it doesn't matter, you'll know everything yourself soon.
It's going to be so much fun having you at the meetings now." Marie had joined the Lodge last summer. "I actually didn't think I was going to get one," Cassie said, settling in to wait for the county bus. "Everyone gets one eventually," said Marie. "That's what they say, but I figured…well, I didn't really grow up here the way you all did." "You've lived here since you were 13 years old." "Yeah.
But…" She shook her head. "It doesn't matter," she said, and forced a smile. "I guess all I mean is that I never really got the Lodge the way you all do. Nobody does anything like it back in the city." "It's just something people in little towns do. It's natural. Cassie!" Marie drew her name out as long as she could. "You're not scared or something, are you?" "No. But I'm anxious." She blinked. She WAS anxious.
She hadn't even realized it until she said it. But that was normal, right? You always felt anxious before big things happened, especially your first time. "You're such a kid," said Marie. "Look, EVERYONE does it, so it can't be anyhing that bad. Right?" "I guess that makes sense." "Anyway, you'll know everything soon, and then you'll see. I just can't believe how excited I am for you!" Marie had taken Cassie under her wing in the 8th grade and made it her personal mission to get Cassie to do anything Marie had done first.
Marie was the reason she was on the cheerleading squad, and the reason she was dating Steve, for example, who had briefly been Marie's boyfriend before she declaring that he and Cassie were "better for each other, and everyone can see it." Anything Marie wanted usually happened.
Before Cassie could reply they were interrupted by a honk and the arrival of a shiny, candy-apple red car with the top down. It gleamed so bright in the gray December sun that Cassie was dazzled, and she took a second to recognize the driver. "Steve?" she said. He smiled. "Come on, I'll give you both a ride." Cassie put her hand on the car door, not sure if it was real.
"Whose is—? Where did you—?" "Late Christmas present from my uncle. He drove it all the way from California. Says it'll double as a graduation present." "Steve, holy shit!" said Marie, clamoring into the back seat. "Language," said Cassie, getting into the passenger seat. She gave Steve a small kiss on the cheek, and buckled her seatbelt. Marie kept hers off and practically fell out when the car roared away from the curb. Cassie held onto the dash with both hands.
"Steve, not so fast." "Just wanted to show you what it could do. Do you like it?" "It's incredible," Cassie said. "But how could your uncle afford to just give you something like this?" They hadn't slowed down yet; the street was a gray and white blur around them. There was only a single stoplight in the entire town, and Steve made sure to go around it, and he gave only passing deference to the stop signs that tried but failed to be as brilliantly red as the car itself as they whizzed by.
All the while he smiled with every tooth in his head. His seatbelt wasn't on either. "He's got dozens just like it," Steve said. "It's what he does: Fixes up old cars and leases them to movie shoots out in Hollywood. Once I'm done with school he's going to bring me out to work for him. That's what he said last night." He took a corner hard. Marie slid around the backseat, laughing. "But I don't want to just be working on cars my whole life," Steve said.
"It's like I always told you, I'm going to make movies. Uncle Max works with all the big-shot studio guys. Most people think it's directors you have to know, but if you get in good with the people who pay for the movies, that's your ticket. What do you think? Do I have a face for pictures?" He winked at Cassie and put a hand on her knee.
Marie piped in: "Take me with you! If Cassie doesn't want to go, that is." Cassie felt a hot stab of jealousy. "I don't—!" Marie laughed. "I'm just teasing, Cass. You're so easy to fool." The car slid a little in the slush of the school parking lot, but Steve kept it in hand.
Cassie wondered if the car would be safe here. Not that anything had ever happened to any student's car, or any other car in town for that matter.
Friends always made fun of Cassie for things like locking the front door or never walking at night without company, rules she'd learned growing up in the city. "You don't have to worry about things like that here," Marie said. The town had only two cops: Sheriff Marcato (or "Sheriff Lucy," as everyone called her) and her single deputy, her son Tommy.
Most weeks there was barely anything for them to do. Marie hopped out of the car without opening the door. "Thanks for the ride!" she yelled over her shoulder as she ran through puddles of slushy snow. "Cassie, catch up!" Someone was waiting for her at the other end of the parking lot, but they couldn't make out who.
Some new boy? Even Cassie's mom had commented on how many new boyfriends Marie had lately. And how quickly she went through them. Without taking her seatbelt off, Cassie twisted around to face Steve. His sandy hair was all mussed from the wind, and she pushed it back out of his face for him. She caught a glimpse of herself in the rearview mirror: Her face was flushed from the speed of the drive. Licking her dry lips, she said, "So, guess what?
I got my Lodge invitation this morning." "That's great." "Yeah. But…I'd feel bad going knowing you won't be there." Steve hunched his shoulders and looked away. "Actually…I joined. My initiation was last month." Cassie started. "But you told me you were going to turn it down. You're allowed to if you want to, right?" He kept looking away.
"Sure, but hardly no one ever does. My dad talked to me about it and I decided I had to join after all. Everyone in my family has always joined. I didn't want breaking the tradition to be the last thing I did here." Cassie was confused. Steve had always hated the Lodge and said it was a bunch of small-town nonsense. He actually laughed when his invitation came, and Cassie saw him throw it away herself.
That was always how he'd been; he always hated to join anything. He'd only went out for the team so that he'd have a jacket to give Cassie, and then quit at the first opportunity.
She guessed he was allowed to change his mind just like anyone else, but why hadn't he told her? She almost asked, but a sudden tightness in her throat stopped the words.
"You're definitely joining, right?" he said. "Well, I always wanted to." "That's good," Steve said. "I'll be there, and after it's over we'll go out for a late drive in the new car and celebrate the New Year. If it's a warm night we can take the top down and look at the stars." "That sounds wonderful," Cassie said, and meant it.
Steve leaned in for a kiss, and she let him. It went on for a long time. She wondered whether it was possible to get a car's windows to steam up while the top was down, and then chastised herself for it.
Steve's hand crept up to touch her just under her left breast… "I'm going to be late," she said, breaking off. "You can be late just once." "No, I really can't, Coach is counting on me.
Will you be here after? Oh, no, that's right, you're working in your dad's shop. I'll call you." After a last kiss goodbye she skipped across the parking lot and away. Practice ran late. Nobody felt rusty, but they still almost dropped Marie twice.
(She was always the top of the pyramid these days. "I never wear any panties when I'm on top, you know," she said once. "If you ever look up, you'll see I'm telling the truth." Cassie had blushed like mad, and Marie hadn't stopped laughing about it all night.) Cassie was sore when she got home and she wanted to take a nice bubble bath and just soak in the heat, but when the time came to take her clothes off she didn't feel quite right.
She looked at herself in the mirror for a long time, trying to figure out what was wrong. Rather than undress, she put on an extra sweater and told herself that was better (although she didn't know why). What an odd day I've had, she thought. Although it hadn't been so strange really, had it? It left her only with a lingering discomfort she couldn't place… She decided to go downstairs and help with dinner. She discovered Aunt Janine at the kitchen table.
They exchanged salutary kisses and Cassie dragged a chair over to sit closer together. Aunt Janine was over at least twice a week, but somehow it never stopped feeling like a surprise. She had been Daddy's sister, but she and Mom were always close. In fact, Aunt Janine was the reason they'd moved to this town after Daddy died, even if she was something of a black sheep locally.
She was a strongly built woman who kept her hair short ("butch" Mom always called it), but she had surprisingly delicate features. Mom said she'd done some modeling work when she was Cassie's age, and Cassie believed it.
Aunt Janine sipped her tea and said, "Hey kiddo. Your mom tells me you've got big news." It was a second before Cassie remembered what that must mean. "Oh, right. Well, it's not that big of a deal, really. But I got a letter today." She said it in a hurry and bit her lip, not sure how Aunt Janine would react.
The older women just nodded and gave her an encouraging pat on the hand. "So your red envelope finally came, did it? I think that's great," she said. "You do?" Cassie blurted it out before she even really meant to. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that.
It's just, you're practically the only adult in town who isn't a member. I thought you said the whole thing is silly." Aunt Janine raised her eyebrows. "Oh yes, I forgot that my reputation precedes me: She Who Would Not Join." She laughed. "Just because I said it's a silly thing doesn't mean you have to think it is too. Go ahead and join if you want to.
You do want to, right?" Cassie nodded. "Well there you go. Be your own woman, that's my motto. For me that meant saying no; maybe for you it means saying yes." Cassie shifted in her chair.
Mom had begun singing in the kitchen. It was a low and somber song, but Cassie couldn't quite make out the words. "Do you ever wish you'd joined?" "It would get me fewer odd looks at the supermarket," Aunt Janine said.
"But come to it, I've never much cared about being looked at. Sometimes…" She paused and looked over the rim of her teacup. "I do wish I'd been a different person then. To tell the truth, I thought I was too good for this town and its silly ways. I don't know if I'd be better off in the Lodge with everyone else, but I do know I'd have been smarter to be someone who thought less of herself and more about everyone else.
Like you. So when I say I'm proud of you, I mean it." Cassie leaned in and hugged Aunt Janine so hard she almost fell out her chair. "All right, enough of that," said Aunt Janine.
"Been a little worked up about it, have you?" "A little bit. Worked up about some other things too. Stuff with Steve." "Remember what I said: No matter what he says, it's your body and your decision." "Nothing like that. Just, he has big plans for after graduation, and I'm still not sure what I want to do.
School, I guess, but I don't know where, and if it'll be anywhere I can keep seeing him. And I think sometimes there are things he doesn't tell me." "Ah, so that's it. Well, the thing you'll learn is—" But she was interrupted by the arrival of Mom and dinner, and the matter dropped. It wasn't until that night, as Cassie finished up her evening prayers and tucked herself under the big old quilt on her bed, that she thought to wonder what Aunt Janine had been about to say.
Well, if it was important she'd probably say it again sooner or later. She wasn't the sort of woman to keep her opinion to herself. And people in little towns were always prone to let a thing slip eventually. Cassie rolled over and slept. *** "You're not really going to wear that old thing to your initiation, are you?" Mom was indicating the silver crucifix necklace around Cassie's neck. Cassie touched it almost unconsciously.
"I always wear it," she said. "And it looks lovely on you. But it seems a touch…well, old-fashioned for a night like this." It was eight o'clock on New Year's Eve, and they were already late because Mom had insisted on baking something for the meeting but didn't start early enough. The brownies were only just now coming out of the oven.
She tried to cut them before they'd had a chance to cool and ended up making a crumbling mess that she eventually just swept onto a plate. Now they were finally almost ready, but although Cassie had spent over an hour in the bathroom getting dressed and ready her mother gave her a look now as if she'd just come home with mud all over a Sunday dress.
Her mom actually reached out for the silver chain, and Cassie backed away a step. "Dad gave it to me." she said. Mom's face softened a little. "He did, didn't he? Well…all right. The rest of your outfit looks beautiful." She smiled, if a bit half-heartedly.
"Let's hurry now, will we?" Steve had offered to give Cassie a ride, but Cassie preferred to go with Mom. She wore the cranberry-red dress she'd gotten for Christmas, as well as black leggings, Steve's earrings, and of course the old necklace from Dad (tucked underneath her neckline). She held the plate of too-hot brownies on her lap during the long, dark drive out to the Lodge House, which sat on a remote track of land on the edge of the pine forest and just outside the actual town limits.
It was a long, ranch-style building, made of genuine redwood. Cassie had only seen it once before, at a distance. As they trooped up the gravel path, she found it pretty but surprisingly dark looking.
It took a second to realize what the problem was: It was the only building in town with no Christmas lights. She wasn't prepared for the commotion when they came in. Since they were the last to arrive, the main hall was filled to capacity, and hundreds of cheerful voices greeted their entrance. Most of the town broke into spontaneous applause at the sight of Cassie, and she was paralyzed by a blush.
The room was all red carpets, wood paneling, and hunting trophies on the walls. The glass eyes of the taxidermy animals seemed to be staring at her too.
Everywhere she looked were familiar faces made unfamiliar by too much makeup and too many expensive clothes and jewels. There was the druggist, Joseph Clampett, and there was Mrs. Balkan, the widow three streets over. About half the girls from the cheerleading squad were here too. Everyone looked somehow like a painting rather than like their real selves. "Hello everyone," she said, stopping every few feet to say "Hello, hello, nice to see you, hello," to someone new.
Dr. Sapirstein, the dentist who took her braces off a year ago, and Mr. Karsley, who had taught her English class in the seventh grade, were grinning at her from the other side of the bar. She gave them a polite wave, but they didn't stop staring.
She felt like sinking through the floor and vanishing. Marie came to her rescue, emerging from the crowd and plucking Cassie by the hand.
She was wearing a black formal dress that Cassie had never seen before, much too tight around the bust. "There is someone here you've GOT to meet," Marie said, dragging Cassie off before she could say a word. Cassie looked over her shoulder and caught a glimpse of her mother waving before the crowd closed and separated them. At one of the many long banquet tables brimming with wine glasses and bottles in buckets of ice, Cassie saw Steve (wearing a dove-colored suit she recognized as belonging to his father) and another man she didn't know who wore white from head to toe, along with a red bowtie and a small, dark mustache.
Marie practically yanked Cassie off her feet bringing her to him. "Meet Uncle Max," she said. Cassie blinked. "From Hollywood?" She regretted it immediately; it seemed a stupid thing to say. But Uncle Max nodded three times in reply. "Yes indeed, and there's no need to ask who you are. Steve boy, you didn't tell me she was such a peach." "Uncle Max, meet Cassie," Steve said. His usually unruly hair was slicked back with some kind of treatment.
He looked incredibly handsome, even if the suit didn't quite fit. The Lodge House had a long bank of windows that were utterly black on a winter night, and he looked like a bright Christmas angel standing in front of them. Cassie's heart did little leaps. Uncle Max handed her a glass of wine and she tried to shy away from it. "I'm underage," she said. "I won't tell if you won't." He winked. "This is going to be a big night for you, so drink up." "Everyone's been excited for you to come," Marie added.
"It seems a lot of people have had their eye on you for a long time," Max said. Steve put an arm around her shoulder in a protective way. "Cassie knows all about that," he said. "We talked it over just last night. Right, babe?" "Right. Yes, definitely. I've been looking forward to it." In fact she had no idea what anyone was talking about, but she didn't want to reveal her ignorance.
She took a long drink of wine for an excuse to break eye contact, and found the taste bitter. It was hot in here with so many people, and too many eyes were on her. She'd expected attention, but this didn't feel right. Before anyone could say more they were approached by Monica Selwyn, the town's matronly woman pastor. "Why Max, you old devil, you didn't tell me you'd be in town for this," she said. "I wouldn't miss it when there's a nice young woman to be taken into the communion," said Max.
The pastor turned to Cassie. "We're all just thrilled to see you here," she said. "I'm supposed to have a little talk with you, woman to woman, about the way things are done here. Can I can steal you away from your friends while everyone else gets ready?" Cassie paused just long enough to give Steve a kiss on the cheek. The next thing she knew she was in a little office Pastor Selwyn led her to, with big leather chairs and tables of dark wood and shelves full of oversized books, the titles of which Cassie couldn't decipher.
It felt cold and important, and the room was lit only by candles. "How would you like a little more wine?" the pastor said, indicating a bottle on the desk. "It's fine; nobody's going to get you in trouble." "It's really not appropriate…" Cassie said, but her glass ended up refilled anyway. She was becoming gradually used to the taste, finding it mellow and fruity, although she didn't like the bubbly, lightheaded feeling it gave her.
"Is this your office?" "Only for Lodge business. I'm what they call the Grotto Master around here. I know it's a silly title, but you remember our town founders started these traditions a long time ago, so they're bound to be a little bit silly. Traditions and secrets, those are what bring us together and keep us together." She smiled. "I guess you're probably feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of the attention?" "A little," Cassie admitted.
"Everyone is being nice. But they're a little more…enthused than I expected." "Well, we've all had our eye on you for a long time." There was that phrase again.
Cassie gulped down a mouthful of wine so that she wouldn't have to respond. Then she nearly spat it all out again when the pastor said: "After all, you've become a beautiful young woman. With a very beautiful body." It was a few seconds before Cassie stopped choking. A few drops of wine spilled onto the arm of the chair and, automatically, she produced a handkerchief and began blotting them out.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I was just surprised because I thought you said—well, I misheard what you said." Pastor Selwyn didn't blink. "You heard me right. Don't tell me it surprises you? Modesty in an attractive young woman is very overrated. Anyway, it's just us girls here." Cassie's mouth went dry.
"That's…not at all appropriate." Again it seemed a foolish thing to say, but what else COULD she even say?
Pastor Selwyn was looking at her in a way that she never had before. In a way no woman had ever looked at Cassie before, for that matter. It made her feel ashamed. "I don't see why you think so," said Pastor Selwyn. "You're long since passed the age where these things should be on your mind. Oh, but your friends do tell me you're quite behind in such matters. You're not really planning on finishing high school still a virgin, are you?" Cassie let the wine fly before she knew what she was doing.
Her aim was short, and all she did was lightly sprinkle the cuffs of the pastor's pants. The rest splattered the carpet. Pastor Selwyn clucked her tongue and stood. "We're all human animals, Cassie. It's normal for us to look at each other's bodies as sexual things.
Don't you feel that way about Steve? Or is it someone else you're interested in? Your friend Marie, maybe? Or even me? I know I'm older than you, but I haven't really let myself go yet. What do you think?" Cassie's eyes went wide as the pastor actually began unbuttoning her blouse. She stood and rounded on her heel.
"I'm leaving. I'm finding my mother and I'm leaving." "Go ahead, if that's what you want," said Pastor Selwyn, in the same patronizing tone you'd use for a child.
"She'll be down in the basement, with the others. The stairs are passed the beaded curtain on the other side of the hall. You just go right ahead, if that's how you feel about it." Cassie's eyes were blurry with tears as she stomped down the hall and shoved through the curtain.
Was this some kind of sick joke, or was Pastor Selwyn really a pervert? Did she try to do this to all the girls who joined? Did she do it to Marie? You heard about this kind of thing on the news, but you didn't ever really expect it.
What was she going to do? Cassie was afraid of not being believed if she said anything, but she couldn't just keep her mouth shut. No, she had to tell someone. She'd march right up to Mom and tell her what happened, even in front of the whole town.
The basement steps were dark and narrow, but they opened into a big space with a concrete floor. Cassie pushed another curtain aside and ran through, blurting out "Mom, I—!" But then she stopped short, and gasped. Hundreds of candles lit the basement, spilling pools of strange wax.
Everyone turned to look at her at the same time, their faces peering from under the hoods of their cloaks. They had all gathered around a circle drawn on the floor, in the center of which was a golden statue of—well, exactly what it was Cassie couldn't say.
But it was strange and awful, and it had wings and horns. There was a certain energy in the air, as if they'd all just been in the middle of something and stopped when she arrived. No one said anything. Cassie stood with her mouth open, unable to speak. Eventually she managed, "I'm sorry.
I'm…in the wrong place." "You're precisely where you should be," said Pastor Selwyn, appearing on the stairs behind her. Cassie was so stunned by what was in front of her that she actually didn't object when the pastor put hands on her shoulders and guided her toward the middle of the room. The sea of hooded figures parted. Now that she was closer, she saw that many of them, men and women, were naked underneath their cloaks. She was brought to the edge of the circle, where the golden idol stared down at her.
"There's no need to be afraid," said Pastor Selwyn. "Everyone who loves you is here. You wanted to speak with your mother? Here she is." Cassie's mother stepped into the circle and lowered her hood. She smiled, but it didn't look entirely real. "Mom, what's going on?" Cassie said. "Oh, my baby," said Mom. "It's time to grow up." "I don't understand. How could you be involved with…I don't even know what it is, but something like this?" The Lodge members laughed.
Cassie's mother took both of her hands. "When your father died and we came here, the grief was so bad I thought I'd lose my mind. Sometimes I even thought about suicide.
These people brought me in when I needed it the most. They showed me a better way. His way." She pointed at the idol. Cassie looked around the circle, recognizing the faces of her neighbors, teachers, and classmates. One of them was Marie. "Come on, don't be afraid," Marie said. "I told you, it's fun once you try it. Just relax." Someone else came into the circle with her.
It was Steve, of course. He took her by the hand and she lacked the will to push him away, even though his touch here made her skin crawl. "So it's everyone?" Cassie said. "The whole town? All this time?" "Didn't you ever suspect? Honestly, you're such a kid," said Marie. "It's the way the world is," said Uncle Max, from the crowd. "I don't believe you," Cassie said.
"I'm going to call the police." "And what will you tell me when you call?" said Sheriff Lucy. Everyone laughed again. Mom hugged Cassie almost too tightly. "I know it seems scary. I felt the same way my first time. You trust me, don't you?" Cassie hesitated.
"I do. But I'm confused. What do you even want me to do?" "That part is easy," said Pastor Selwyn. "You've worked so hard to be a good girl and wait, but you don't have to wait any longer.
It's time to use your body the way it was intended. Here, in His presence. You're lucky that Steve was initiated before you, and can be with you for this now." Cassie squirmed. "You mean you want me to…I mean, here, with everyone watching? I've never even—Hey, wait a minute!" A penny had finally dropped.
She turned on Steve. "Who did YOU do it with?" He tried to disguise the look he shot Marie, but it told Cassie all she needed to know. "You—you—! How could you?" "Oh grow up," said Marie. "It didn't mean anything," said Steve, his voice bland. "You'll understand, once you're one of us," said Marie. "These things don't matter as much as you think they do.
We can even do it all together, if you want." Marie pushed herself at Cassie in a way that made Cassie back away. Her friends' faces were dark and empty. "What did they do to you?" she said. "They opened my eyes," said Marie. "I'm going to be sick." "Don't be a drama queen." "No, really, I feel sick. I'm dizzy. Mom, help me!" She almost fell, but her mother was quick to catch her.
Cassie leaned on her (even though she didn't like touching the cloak Mom was wearing), and everyone parted to make room again as she was helped for a few stumbling steps toward the door. "It's all right dear, it's all right. I'm going to take her up to the bathroom for a moment. We'll be right back, all right?" Pastor Selwyn agreed.
Locked in the small upstairs bathroom, Cassie hugged the toilet. Her guts heaved and she expelled most of the wine she'd had. Mom stayed outside, talking through the door. "I'm sorry, baby," she said. "I wanted to warn you, but it's not allowed. I knew what a shock this would be. I felt the same way my first night. But I owe everything to these people.
They've given us a good life here, and I want you to enjoy all of the same things that I have." "I understand," Cassie mumbled. "You're so trusting. It's one of the things I love most about you, but you can't stay innocent forever." "I know," said Cassie. Mom's voice sounded dreamy now. "Don't be too mad at Steve. He's right, it doesn't mean as much as you think it does.
And now you get to be with him for your first time. I know it sounds strange, but I'm glad I get to be here for such a big moment in your life. You'll learn that we don't have to be ashamed of any of this. Just tell me when you're ready and we'll go and see this through together. All right sweetie?" The window small and the opening narrow, but Cassie managed to wriggle through.
She had no coat, and her feet sank into two inches of dirty snow when she landed. She wouldn't last long out here, but she didn't need to. The Lodge was right by the Country Club's golf course. If she cut across that she could be in the pine forest in less than ten minutes. However soon Mom and everyone in the basement took to realize she was gone, they'd have to go the long way around by car, all the way down the canyon road.
That was all the head start Cassie needed. The snow slowed her down, but at least she was wearing real shoes. (Mom had tried to talk her into high heels, but she'd said no.) The night was pitch black, and the cold stung her bare arms. It wasn't smart to run, she knew; too easy to fall and twist an ankle in this mess. But she didn't dare slow down. After five minutes she had crossed the Country Club grounds, and after another five she found the dirt road through the forest that twisted away from the main road.
Ten minutes after that (everyone at the Lodge had found her out by now, she was sure, and would be on their way to find her) she saw what she was looking for: A half dozen converted mobile homes, nested in the middle of what had once been a much larger and more populous trailer park.
And, thank God, the lights were on in the one on the end.
Cassie flew up the steps, banged the screen open, and pounded on the door as hard as she could. "Aunt Janine! Oh God, Aunt Janine!" Aunt Janine, when she answered, looked one part annoyed and one part amazed, but before she could say anything Cassie threw herself into her aunt's arms. The older woman, baffled, made reassuring noises and even rocked her a little until the storm ebbed and Cassie was able to talk again.
"My word, Cassie, what's happened? Why aren't you—" "We have to go," Cassie said around little hiccupping sobs. "They'll guess where I went. They'll all be on their way here now. We have to get in your truck and go before they find us." "Just what are you talking about?
Now come here and sit down. No, no; whatever's going on it can wait two minutes more while you explain yourself, and then whatever you say I promise I'll believe you and if it's as bad as all that I'll drive you clear to the state line.
Deal?" She had no choice but to agree, so Cassie sat on Aunt Janine's faded, avocado-colored couch and, with her heart in her throat and expecting to hear the telltale crunch of tires on the icy gravel outside any second, she told Aunt Janine everything.
After the first minute, the other woman's eyes went wide. After the second, she went pale. Cassie finished the story, licked her cracked lips, and looked at her aunt with red-eyed desperation. Please believe me, she thought, please oh please… Aunt Janine stood.
"Kiddo, we're leaving. I just have one call to make." "We don't have time!" "One call," said Aunt Janine. "I'm going to take you somewhere safe, but they've got to know we're coming. I've been worried about something like this for a long time. There are people who can help us, but they have to know.
One minute." So Cassie sat and stared at the clock while her aunt made a call from the bedroom. The numbers said 10:46; almost midnight, almost time for a Happy New Year. She could hear Aunt Janine's clipped voice speaking into the phone: "It's me. It's happened. Yes, just like we were afraid of. The new place? Yes, we can make it, if you're sure? All right.
Meet us there." And then she stood in the doorway, looking wan but determined. "Let's go," she said. Cassie had a million questions (actually, only two: Where are we going and who are we meeting?), but Aunt Cassie shushed her.
"We can't take the truck, they'll be on the road by now and we'll run right into them," she said. "We'll have to hike." "It's freezing out." "I know," Aunt Janine said, bundling Cassie in one of her extra parkas and cinching it as tight around the girl's smaller frame as it would go.
"But it's not far. You know the new trailer park, by the river fork?" "The one you said you'd never move into because it's full of plebss and assholes?" Aunt Janine chuckled.
"That's the one. You're young and quick on your feet, and I'll try not to slow you down too much. Going through the forest we can make it in 30 minutes flat." "Will we be safe?" "Safe enough until morning, and then we can be gone for good. You were real brave, kiddo. I've got your back now." So even though it was still just as cold and the snow was still just as deep and even though the pine forest was dark and it honestly scared her just as much as before, Cassie felt encouraged as they set out.
She liked Aunt Janine's plan: get away. That was all that Cassie wanted, to get as far away as possible from those people she'd thought were her friends. What in the world would happen to her after that she couldn't imagine, but she didn't care either. Her face was numb and her legs were sore by the time they arrived. Aunt Janine gestured not to one of the trailers but to the little white cabin at the edge of the lot, the manager's home. "The people here are on our side and we should be safe, but be as quiet as you can just in case." They crept through the snow, which just a week ago had been shimmering white and new but was now the drab, gray color that it always became after too many days between storms.
The cabin windows were dark. Aunt Janine knocked on the door twice and then went in without waiting for an answer. Cassie followed. The inside was lit only by a few old-fashioned oil lamps, and it took a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the inky interior. The main room looked like a small, neatly arranged study, with everything clean but distinctly unused, as if no one really ever lived here.
It was perilously quiet. Cassie wanted to call out to see if someone was there, but couldn't, so Aunt Janine said, "We're here." Someone had been sitting in the big leather chair by the fireplace, and now that person turned to them and held up the lantern from the table. "Cassie!" said Cassie's mother. "Thank goodness you're safe." Cassie turned to run.
Aunt Janine stood in the doorway. Cassie pushed passed her, but through the open door she saw people emerging from the forest and the other trailers and surrounding the cabin, each of them wearing a hood and holding a candle. She backed away so suddenly she lost her balance and would have fallen and smacked her skull on the cabin floor, but Steve was there to catch her. Before she knew it he had carried her the rest of the way in and plunked her down in the big chair.
Marie stirred up the fire and soon the whole tiny room glowed with orange light. Pastor Selwyn patted Aunt Janine on the hand. "You did the right thing bringing her back to us." Cassie felt tears coming.
"How could you?" she said. "It's like I told you the other day, kiddo: I don't want you making the same mistakes I did. It's better this way." "Listen to her," said Marie. "Listen to all of us," said Steve. "Everybody wants what's best for you." "Don't you believe that, darling?" said Cassie's mom. "Don't you believe we love you?" Cassie looked around the circle of faces, each of them glowing in the firelight. "Yes," she said, although hesitantly.
"But I don't know what the right thing to do is." "Then let us tell you," said Pastor Selwyn. "That's why we're here," added Mom. The people outside were making noise now—singing?
Chanting? Cassie was in the big chair with everyone in a circle around her, silhouetted by the fireplace. She felt like it was the entire world surrounding her. This is really it, she thought, I can't win. The tiny clock on the mantle ticked away the seconds, telling her it was well passed 11 and soon to be midnight. She sniffled and said: "All right.
But you'll have to help me." Marie took Cassie by one hand and Steve took the other. They lead her to a small bedroom where she was not surprised to find a golden idol like the one in the Lodge House standing over the bed.
Marie lit the candles while Pastor Selwyn stripped most of the linen off. Cassie stood facing Steve and he seemed uncertain, shuffling his feet and giving her a small smile in an awkward way. He seemed like his old self again. But it only lasted until Pastor Selwyn turned her around to face the statue again.
"You have to pledge yourself to Him," said the pastor. "Not just in words, but in your heart." With that, Pastor Selwyn began to undress Cassie again, and Cassie didn't stop her. Her mother helped. When they were done, there was nothing on her lithe cheerleader's body except for the silver necklace and its crucifix, dangling from her neck. Her mother reached for it but Cassie again put up a hand to stop her.
"No," she said. "Let me." The clasp came away easily. The whole thing dropped into a little glittering pile on the floor, which Marie kicked away. It slid off into some dark corner, forgotten. Now Cassie was naked in front of the idol.
Even though it was only a statue, she swore she could feel its eyes on her. Pastor Selwyn wouldn't let her cover herself, though. Outside the little window, the crowd gathered, their candles still lit. The clock on the mantle ticked away the last remaining minutes of the year. "You're not sure how to start," said Pastor Selwyn. "That's normal." "Let me show you," said Marie. At some point she too had shed her clothes, and the two stood face to face, their naked bodies only a few inches apart.
They'd seen each other this way before, of course, but this was different. Marie leaned in to kiss her and it felt strange. Cassie tensed and wanted to pull away, but she forced herself to stay still for it. Marie kissed her again and again, her pink tongue probing Cassie's lips. Their lithe cheerleaders' bodies pressed together, soft curves and taut lines glancing against each other.
Marie licked her lips. "Don't be shy," she said. Steve was hovering somewhere nearby, and Pastor Selwyn and Cassie's mother watched from the doorway. Marie took Cassie's face in her hands and kissed her deeper, pushing her until Cassie's back was pressed to the cold, hard surface of the statue.
It had a gigantic prick that protruded against her bare behind. Marie's hands fondled Cassie, squeezing and massaging her thighs and her hips before moving up to her breasts.
Cassie gasped when the other girl pinched her nipples, tugging on them until they became pink and swollen.
Her body went flush, and she quivered. Marie giggled. "See? It's not so bad. Just listen to what your body tells you. That's what He wants." She stuck Cassie's fingers into her mouth and sucked. Cassie didn't know how she felt. It seemed wrong to let Marie touch her this way, but she was becoming increasingly curious about what might happen next. The combination of familiarity (she'd known Marie for years, knew every inch of her, backwards and forwards) and strangeness (she'd never even thought of doing anything like this before) was too unexpected to be pleasant but too unusual to want it to stop.
It was a lot like the taste of the wine she'd had earlier, and the woozy sensation she'd gotten when alcohol first touched her tongue and mingled with her bloodstream. Marie's hands were on Cassie's ass now, squeezing hard as the two girls pressed together into heated, open-mouthed kisses. Cassie was still trapped against the golden statue and it was starting to hurt, but Marie didn't seem to want to let up.
In fact, she seemed almost rabid to keep Cassie exactly where she wanted her. Their naked breasts pressed together, hard nipples touching and sending little jolts of surprise and pleasure through her. All this time Cassie's own hands had been glued to her sides, but now Marie picked them up and guided them to certain places.
The other girl's body was soft but toned, and her skin felt aching hot on Cassie's cold hands. At Marie's insistence she probed along the length of one thigh, then higher up, to the place where they pressed tight together. Cassie gasped when Marie pushed her hand even higher and she felt something unmistakable. Marie purred. "See? We've all got a body, just the same as anyone else's. Nothing to be ashamed of.
It's beautiful, isn't it? It should make you feel beautiful all over, inside and out. You should feel like it's the most wonderful thing in the world." "I do," Cassie said, and it was true. But it was also the strangest and most frightening thing in the world. She knew (or imagined she knew) what it would feel like to be touched in that place, and the idea that she was making Marie feel that right now terrified her. It seemed dangerous, somehow.
Marie looked over her shoulder and nodded at Steve. "Now you," she said. This was easier, at first. Kissing Steve felt like the most normal and familiar thing there could be. Even the feeling of their naked bodies against each other was nothing Cassie wasn't prepared to handle, since she'd imagined it many times before. And she was ready for it; she hadn't wanted it to happen like this, but even so. She longed for him to take her to the bed, but every time he tried Pastor Selwyn wouldn't let him.
"Not like that," she said. "Turn her around." Steve obeyed, and although Cassie wanted to resist she didn't, allowing him to manhandle her. He turned her around and bent her over, so that the only way she could remain on her feet was to throw her arms around the idol and lean onto it. It was cold and hard and it made her hurt, but she held on anyway. Her ass was arched in the air and she could feel Steve moving into position. Cassie held her breath; she wanted it, but not like this.
Steve seemed reluctant to, but Pastor Selwyn said, "Do it," and Cassie knew he wouldn't—couldn't—say no. Marie crouched beside her and whispered in her ear. "It will hurt a little, but in a second you won't care." "Look up, Cassie," said Pastor Selwyn.
"Look at Him. Do this in His name." Cassie looked up. The carved, expressionless eyes seemed to be staring right through her. She felt like she'd be crushed under that gaze, but at that moment Steve pressed in and Cassie gasped and nearly screamed as she felt herself open up. There was a feeling of something pulling away and (as promised) a sudden, sharp pain deep inside her.
Reflexively, she hugged the statue even harder, to keep herself from falling. She felt a warm dribble on her leg and knew that it was blood. "Are you all right?" Steve said. "She's fine," said Pastor Selwyn. "Go ahead." "I'm okay," Cassie whispered. "Really." So he did it again, and it hurt again, and then repeatedly, and eventually the hurt subsided and she felt her body open up more.
Steve reached underneath her, so that some of her weight rested on his forearms while his hands (somewhat too eagerly) reached for her breasts, squeezing them in two handfuls and rolling her nipples against his fingers. She cried out again, but not in pain; this was a sound she'd never heard herself make again. Marie looked pleased. "That's it," she said.
"Isn't it just like I told you? Steve, slow down, it's not a race." "No," Cassie said, breathing the word out in a hard rush.
"Faster." She braced herself against the idol and pushed backwards into Steve. He filled her more. Marie seemed to find this funny, but Cassie suddenly didn't care what her friend thought. She didn't care that her mother or the pastor were still watching. A hot, powerful, delicious feeling was stirring inside of her, and she wanted to feel it spread all the way through her.
Marie had smeared some of the blood that had dribbled from Cassie onto the statue, and now regarded the sight of it with an expression of awe. Cassie put her head down, so that the force of Steve's uncertain but persistent thrusting wouldn't shake her around, but Pastor Selwyn shouted again, "Look up. Look up! Know Him." Cassie looked up into the unseeing golden eyes, and somehow it didn't seem so terrible this time. Or maybe it was just that it didn't matter so much anymore.
Her mouth was frozen in a kind of wide O, and the unfamiliar noise was coming out of her all the time, like a long coil unspooling itself from inside her. Soon, she thought, it will happen soon. From outside she heard a voice, one of the Lodge members, say, "Everyone, it's almost time." And then all of their voices together said: "Ten!" Cassie was drenched in sweat, her naked back and thighs gleaming as her hair became damp with it. Steve was covered in it too, she knew, and his breathing sounded ragged, but he didn't slow down.
She wriggled around and around, swiveling her hips in an unfamiliar way and grinding against him. From outside: "Nine! Eight! Seven!" She wanted it harder and faster, but this seemed to be as hard and as fast as he could go.
Marie clung to Cassie's legs and stroked her thighs, whispering encouragement. A throbbing feeling that had started deep inside of her was growing. Any second now it would get so big she couldn't contain it, and then it would crush her completely. But she didn't stop. She couldn't. "Six! Five! Four!" Right at the pivotal moment, Cassie looked up. For a split second the rest of the room faded away, leaving her alone with the golden idol.
The agonizing, twisted upwell of pleasure grabbed hold of her and sent her plunging into its depths, and her arms wrapped tighter around that figure. Finally, she really did feel at one with Him.
Everything they'd told her was true: This was what her body was made for, and it was made for Him. He had set her free. All of her anxiety and fears about the future melted away in an instant of unadulterated gratification. The voices at the window cried out, "Three! Two! One!" And the little clock struck the first chime of midnight.
The old year was dead. The New Year was finally born. Steve picked Cassie up and laid her on the bed, which she fell into with a grateful sigh. All of the trials of her long night caught up with her at once, sending her into a state of blissful exhaustion. Everyone peered down at her, and her eyelids fluttered a few times as the clock finished striking. Before she drifted into unconsciousness, she heard her mother say: "Well? Do you feel any different?" "Yes," Cassie said, drawing the word out and tasting it, as if she'd never said it before.
"Oh yes, I do. Very much." "That's good," said Pastor Selwyn, and everyone else agreed. Cassie's mother wiped at tears. "Oh my little angel," she said. "Mommy is so very proud of you."