“Tomorrow night, we go forth to God,” my mother says, smiling. Her face always appears drawn and hollow, even when she’s happy. Dark circles surround her once beautiful blue eyes, now a dullish gray color. We haven’t seen the light in years. She’s untangling her waist-long, brownish-gray hair using the silver comb my father gave her when I was a child. It’s embellished with intricate little lilies, Mom’s favorite flowers. She used to keeps pots of them all over our old house — big, colorful ones. The dirt spilling out, the smell of garden permeating the place. Dad bought the comb for her on Mother’s Day. Her initials are carved in tiny letters near the teeth. I always loved it, and I would use it when she wasn’t looking, pretending I was Rapunzel.
The memories make me smile softly. That was back when Dad was alive. Back when things were normal. It’s about the only memory we have left of him. Mom burned everything else, because Master Uzziah said to. She puts the now tarnished comb down on our makeshift dresser and turns to me. “Get some sleep, Ruth. It’s our big day.”
I feel sick as she says it. I watch her blow out the candle, her white nightgown now glowing in the damp, dark cavern in which we live. She moves like a ghost, her hair wispy, her face pale like paper. I don’t know where we’re located. When I was twelve, Mom packed up our stuff, blindfolded me and drove off into the night, abandoning our small Oklahoma home in the suburbs. That night is hazy, and I barely remember what happened. I just know that we drove and drove and drove, and we ended up in this place. We haven’t left — not once — since we’ve been here. I’m 15 now.
After Dad died, Mom just wasn’t the same. He got caught in a house fire when I was 10. I’m not sure of much else; Mom can’t talk about it. In fact, she pretends Dad never existed, save for the comb. I take out the old photograph of him I have tucked away under my bunk after I hear the heavy breaths of her slumber. It’s the one thing I managed to hide from Mom. In the picture, he’s smiling, his warm brown eyes crinkled in the corners. His glasses were always crooked and his teeth weren’t totally straight, but he was handsome. I was perched on his shoulders, maybe three or four, wearing a pink onesie. I’m raising my arms and laughing. We both look so happy.
I put the picture down and swallow hard. My mother’s words echo in my mind. Tomorrow night, we go forth to God. Everyone in our community has been preparing for the Ascent since we arrived. We pray six hours of the day, and we eat one meal consisting of bread, water, soup and a fruit of some sort every night. On special occasions, we have meat.
My only concept of time is the calendar we have on our dresser. Master Uzziah devised one for every family. On it, we count down the days until the Ascent.
I turn over and close my eyes, trying to rest. Minutes pass, maybe hours — it’s hard to tell. Eventually I fall into a restless slumber, my dreams plagued with Master Uzziah’s eyes, so ominous, dark, probing. He knows what I’m thinking. He knows I don’t believe; he knows my plans. He knows…
The next morning the families gather in the Center Cavern, where Master Uzziah always holds his evening sermons. The room is round, dim, and wet; a cold, sticky mist pervades the cave. Water drips down the gray stone walls, plopping loudly on the ground. Plop, plop, plop. A frigid puddle has formed around my bare, dirty feet. I’d give my left arm to take a hot bath somewhere.
There are three other families here, in our community. Abraham and Bethel stand off to the side, their arms wrapped tightly around each other. They have one son, Zach. He’s nine. I gaze sadly at him, at his scruffy blonde hair, his hopeful expression. He has no idea what’s really happening tonight; he’s only a child. I feel my eyes welling up, tears threatening to break past the barrier of my tired lids. I swallow hard to push down the quickly-forming lump in my throat. I must remain rational, level-headed. I have one shot tonight.
Next to them are Tacitus and Mabel, in their early 70s. They hold hands now, solemn — but there’s a glimmer in their eyes. They exchange knowing smiles as Master Uzziah speaks about the Ascent. They believe, with their whole hearts, that they are going to God tonight. In their minds, they’re not expiring. They’re transforming.
Tacitus and Mabel have two daughters, Rebecca and Eden. They’re twin sisters, middle-aged. Both have icy blue eyes, long, black manes and wide, toothy smiles. They’re ready, too. They stretch their arms and look up, and I watch their mouths move in silent prayer as Master continues his sermon. Their knee-length hair sways as they move from side to side. It leaves a cold feeling in my stomach, and I shiver. I never was fond of them.
Finally, Luke and Abigail are on the other end of the cavern, standing with their 16-year-old son Mark, their hands on his shoulders. But they’re gazing intently at Master, unaware of the glances Mark and I exchange. He gives me a slight nod, which I return. Our signal. I quickly turn to Master Uzziah, searching for signs that he saw, that he knows. But Master is deep into his sermon, and his eyes are closed as he shouts the holy words. Safe — for now.
The day wears on. I kneel in prayer next to my mother. God, if you’re up there, please don’t let this happen. I squeeze my eyes shut, concentrating, willing the words to rise up out of this damp cavern and into the glory above. Daylight. How I long for it.
My thoughts drift off to Mark. Mark, with his strong build, olive skin, and shiny, shoulder-length brown curls. And his eyes — those lovely, almond-shaped eyes. They’re so beautiful. I’ve known him since we were just kids here, but he’s grown so much since our friendship blossomed out of these soggy caves three years ago.
Mark has become more than just a friend. Sometimes he and I sneak off together during prayer time. We meet in the Secret Room, the one we discovered two years ago, a maze away from the Center Cavern or our bunks. Nothing can hurt us in the Secret Room. We lie on the ground, holding hands or each other; we talk about everything in dreamy whispers. Our hopes. Our deepest yearnings. Our plans for the future.
And yes, we’re going to have a future. Mark and I, together. That’s our future.
I turn back to prayer. God, please help us escape.
This is it. It’s time. We’re back in the Center Cavern after the Final Feast, and Master Uzziah is cross-legged on the ground. Long, white candles light up the room, hot wax dripping on the stone. Eerie shadows of the community members play on the walls. We sit in a circle, surrounding Master. Watching, waiting for his final testament. Master told us what would happen a long time ago. He explained how we’re going to die.
“Brothers and sisters,” Master begins. He’s grinning, his rotting teeth on full display. His scraggly white hair hangs in thin strands around his gaunt face, cheekbones jutting out. Bags sag underneath his eyes, but the eyes themselves are bright and hungry. Black and wicked, they haunt me every night in my sleep. “We are gathered here tonight in honor of the Ascent. My disciples, we are going to God. We are leaving tonight!”
He shouts this, and the families respond in hysterics. Mark’s parents are weeping loudly; the twins are screaming, beating their scrawny chests with white knuckles. Abraham and Bethel shout praises. Zach is jumping up and down wildly. My stomach sinks. Will he remember what we told him?
Next to me, Mom squeezes my hand. A single tear slips down her cheek. “I love you,” she whispers, her free hand cupping my face. She tucks a stray strand of hair behind my ear. “And I’ll see you soon.”
I turn away. I can’t bear to look at her. What has she done? So blinded by faith, a faith tainted by evil and a thirst for power. Master Uzziah told us he’s human divinity, that he was sent here by God to gather his followers and carry them to heaven. But it’s all a big, twisted lie. I can see it in those black eyes.
Dad wouldn’t have wanted this. If he could see what’s happening, he would think Mom was sick, delusional — that she needed help. He would find a good doctor for her, and he would visit her in the hospital. He would bring her lilies every week. And he would save me. He wouldn’t let Master Uzziah hurt me.
But Dad’s dead, and it’s up to me to be saved.
My thoughts rapidly flash forward. Mark and I during the nights, in the Secret Room, forming plans in fervent, hushed voices. One night, we carried Zach there in his sleep, away from Abraham and Bethel. When you get the white pill on the night of the Ascent, we told him after waking him, hide it under your tongue, and then oh-so quietly push it out of your mouth. It’s a game you’ll get to play with just the big kids. And don’t tell anyone! It’s our little secret.
Mark is next to me, his hands raised, singing hymns. Playing along. I force a smile and turn back to my mother. “I love you too, Mom,” I say. “I’ll meet you there.”
Master Uzziah distributes the pills now. Lethal tablets — they will kill us in under five minutes. He places a pill in the palm of every member’s hand. When he gets to me, I don’t look up. I can feel his hot breath on my forehead. His fingers, long, bony and spotted, press the small white tablet in my hand. I try not to shake as I close my fist.
The breaths of the people around me are raspy and fading fast. I lie here, waiting for Mark’s signal. It’s quiet, so quiet, the last breaths dying out. After a few minutes, I move my arm an inch to the side with painstaking slowness. I tap Mark’s wrist.
He doesn’t tap back. I tap again, pressing harder this time. No response. My heart races, thumping loudly in my breast. What is he doing? I think, in an utter panic. Why hasn’t he…? My chest is going to explode.
Maybe Mark let the pill dissolve under his tongue without meaning to. Maybe he wasn’t fast enough; maybe he didn’t have the chance to spit it out. We went over these plans hundreds of times. How could he let this happen? My mind is muddled, my thoughts swimming in alarm. I can feel hot tears piling in the corners of my eyes. I grit my teeth. No, I think. He’s alive, he’s okay, he just—
Before I can finish my thought, something tickles my ear. I fight the urge to jerk my lids open and instead peek through the cracks. Scraggly white hair dangles near my face. It’s Master Uzziah! I almost gasp, fear penetrating my entire body. His eyes are staring into my face, dark, piercing, pupil-less. I hold my breath, hoping with every fiber of my being that he can’t hear my heart, which is threatening to break through my body.
He leans close. “Mark and Zach told me what you were planning,” he whispers into my ear. “You’re a naughty girl, Ruth. A mortal sinner.”
He squeezes my arm. His grip is cold, deathly cold, and an icy sensation crawls on the surface of my skin, from my feet to my scalp. I open my eyes just in time to see the long, gleaming silver knife in Master Uzziah’s hand, raised high above his head.