23 May 2024

15 – Betrayal

When Joseph was informed that the men guarding the gate had been knocked out, he immediately went to the barracks in which the deputy had been placed. He was not surprised to find it empty. He went through all the rooms, looking for any clue as to where she might be now. A handwritten note on the sink ledge caught his eye. It was simply titled “John”.

He grabbed it and hesitated for a moment. It was not his habit to meddle in his brothers’ lives and he advocated privacy for everyone, but the particular circumstances made him want to know what she had written to him. Lately, John had been particularly dissipated and had shown many signs of disinterest in his obligations to the cult. It was a question of everyone’s well-being and Joseph needed to know what was wrong with his youngest brother. He was certain that she had something to do with it, so he decided to read the note.

Once his eyes had finished deciphering the letters, he crumpled up the paper and clenched it in his fist. He took a quick step toward the house that John occupied.

* * *

Meanwhile, Grace’s pickup truck was crossing into Holland Valley. She headed for the Lamb of God Church, where she parked. Dana stared at her in disbelief.

— What are you doing, Grace ? Why are we stopping here ?
— We need to talk. Come on, get out.

She followed her friend into the chapel and was surprised to find Father Jerome there, shotgun in hand. He seemed to have been waiting for them for some time. He greeted her and invited her to take a seat in the first pew he faced, sitting on a box of supplies.

Grace called out to her first.

— What the hell is going on ? What are you playing at ?
— What do you mean ?
— You know what I’m talking about, don’t play dumb !
— I don’t.
— That asshole John Seed and you, damn it ! What’s your problem ?
— Oh Grace please ! You know it was in his interest to say anything to divide us !
— Don’t play me for a fool ! Jerome told me everything.

Dana glared at the pastor. How did he dare ? He reacted before she could.

— I’m sorry, deputy. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, not with the consequences of my silence.

She lowered her head, staring at the church floor. Guilt gnawed at her, but the feelings she thought she had for the Baptist seemed sincere and legitimate considering recent events.

— Yes, I’ve been sleeping with him. So what ?

Grace opened her eyes wide as she stared at Jeffries.

— So ? So you can’t be trusted ! Hope County folks were counting on you to help them get out of this mess and get rid of that freaks family !
— Who says I’m not working on it ?
— By banging the enemy ? It’s a tried and true strategy for sure !
— Look Grace, I’m not asking you to understand, I’m just asking you to let me explain the situation.
— Well go ahead, we’re listening ! I’m curious to know how this scumbag managed to get you into this mess.
— First, I wish you’d stop using abusive language about John.

Grace rolled her eyes. He really  had brainwashed her comrade. It seemed Faith was not the only one to lobotomize her subjects anymore.

— When did it all start ?
— When you sent me to guard the outpost between Holland Valley and the Whitetail Mountains. John caught me by surprise. He cornered me and I couldn’t do anything about it, I had already gotten Boomer into the car. He didn’t hurt me, just threatened me.

— Oh, “just threatened”.

Again, Grace rolled her eyes in disbelief.

— Go on.
— I don’t know what came over me. That’s when I think I felt the first hint of being interested.
— You’re completely crazy, you poor thing !
— I told you : I don’t know how I got there. Anyway, I was sure he was going to give me a hard time after that, but that wasn’t the case.
— What do you mean ?
— He kidnapped me. We spent the night at his ranch. I had a great time with him.
— You’re on another planet, come back to earth, odd girl !

Grace’s gaze suddenly focused to Dana’s shirt.

— What’s wrong with you ? Are you hurt ?

The deputy glanced down at her belly in fear. Her shirt was stained with blood.

— No, it’s all right.

Insistent, Armstrong rushed over to her to pull up the garment and see for herself. Her eyes widened in astonishment and disgust as soon as she saw the ink and blood name.

— Damn it, deputy ! Did that psycho do this to you ?

Dana promptly pulled the cloth over her belly and angrily retorted.

— Don’t touch me ! I’m the one who asked him to write it. And before you imply it, I wasn’t under the influence of anything or anyone. I wasn’t forced into anything, and if you want to know, John was hesitant and I had to insist that he do it.

Grace stared at her in disbelief.

— You’re out of your mind !

Dana angrily stood up and headed for the chapel door.

— You know what, Grace ? There’s no point in me telling you my story because you don’t care anyway and you’ll always find something to say to make me feel bad. I had no intention of falling for him, the feelings just came over me and I couldn’t control them. Whether you agree or not.

Jerome gave Grace a pleading look before intervening in turn.

— Deputy, wait. Come back to your seat, please.

Dana wearily looked at him and resigned herself to coming back.

— I believe you and I think you are sincere in your feelings. I saw the closeness you two shared when I conducted the… “ceremony”. The problem is, your relationship can potentially harm the resistance. What guarantee do we have that you won’t side with the Seeds and serve Eden’s Gate to be with him ?
— There is no guarantee. Only my word. All I can tell you is that I have no intention of serving any cause. I’m tired of serving everyone to the point of forgetting my own wants and needs. I too have aspirations. I too have the right to realize my dreams and live my life as I want. Have you noticed that no one here ever asks me how I’m doing ? That none of the people in this damn county, Grace and you included, know my first name ?

The preacher and the sniper exchanged a shameful look.

— John knows it. He cares how I feel. In the end, he’s been there for me more in two months than the entire fucking county I’ve devoted my body and soul to since I arrived.

She clenched her fists, suppressing tears, before adding.

— Anyway, you have nothing to fear. We just slept together. The pseudo ceremony was only meant to calm his conscience. I don’t care, I’m not a believer. There’s nothing and never will be anything serious between us. I’m just a pastime.

Her friends remained silent. There was nothing more to say. Both had now grasped the sense of injustice and loneliness she was experiencing.

* * *

Joseph stormed into the house where his younger brother lived, sending the door crashing against the wall. Finding the master bedroom empty, he rushed to the bathroom. The Baptist was trimming his beard. Joseph violently pulled him by the collar. John stared at him in disbelief.

— Joseph ? What’s the matter ?
— Don’t you ever lie to me again, John !
— What are you talking about ?
— I’m talking about the deputy !
— What did she do again ?
— She ran away, after two of our followers were knocked out. And she left this for you.

John feverishly grabbed the crumpled paper his brother was handing him. His throat tightened as he was silently reading the words. “I must join the resistance. I’m sorry, I’ll explain everything.” Joseph’s eyes glared at him. He shouted.

— What does that mean, John ?

As his brother remained silent, he lost his patience and grabbed him hard, slamming him against the tiled wall.

— I knew there was something going on, but I had no idea it was this bad ! I’m very disappointed in you ! I had given you all my trust and obviously I was wrong ! No betrayal is so high as the one that takes place within one’s own family.
— Joseph, it’s not what you think, I…
— Not what I think ? I’ll tell you what I think : you were caught up in your past vices and you didn’t know how to resist temptation when it came to you. This woman is the devil, she deliberately provoked you. She chose you because you are the weakest among us. It was not difficult to tempt you, she targeted your addictions and you gave in to lust again, despite my many warnings and your false promises.
— No, Joseph…
— Shut up ! I’m tired of listening to you repeating your excuses and pleas. I granted you my forgiveness, but despite that you have betrayed me again. I think Jacob was right, you’re the plaything of that devil and neither she nor you are worthy of salvation. Meet me in the chapel. Now.

Joseph left as quickly as he had entered, leaving John shaken. The Baptist raised a trembling hand to wipe the bloody trail left on his cheek by the razor blade. In a rage, he swept all the bottles around the sink in a violent gesture, swearing.

When he entered the chapel, all the siblings were already together. Joseph was standing on the platform, as if he was going to give a sermon to his congregation. Jacob and Faith stood beside him.

John had the distinct impression that he was appearing in court as a defendant and that the jury was also acting as a judge. Attempting to put on a brave face, he gave the sneering grin he usually gave to the individuals he submitted, before speaking.

— So what ? Are we gathered for my judgment ? What do you want from me ?

Joseph took a few steps forward so that he could stand at the same level as the Baptist and look him in the eye to make sure his words would be well understood.

— We expect you, first, to confess your faults.

John chuckled.

— Normally, I’m the one supposed to take confessions.
— Well, this time you’re the one who has sinned. Confess your vices, and we’ll judge if you are worthy of our forgiveness.

Faith and Jacob also sought his gaze, which made him uncomfortable. He had always feared his elder brothers, but if even his sister, who had always supported him, sided with them, he would have little chance of getting out of the embarrassing situation he had put himself in. Joseph continued.

— First of all, I want to know when this all started.

John didn’t answer. He was trying to buy time to come up with appropriate retorts and excuses in his defense.

— Answer the question, John. When exactly did you fall back into your old ways ?
— I haven’t.
— Are you making fun of me ? So you claim you’ve never committed any lust sin with that she-devil ?
— I did not say that.
— Explain yourself quickly, I’m beginning to lose my patience.

John’s gaze sought Faith’s. She was still staring at him, but she was now showing a compassionate smile. She seemed to encourage him to confess everything to Joseph. The Baptist continued.

— I have not sinned, Joseph. Yes, I did sleep with her. But it had nothing to do with lust.

Joseph looked confused, while Jacob raised an eyebrow, a Machiavellian smile on his face. He could hardly wait for his youngest brother to spill the beans. Their little romance amused him, despite the jealousy he felt that John had gotten his hands on her before him. The younger Seed turned his gaze back to the Father.

— The reason I did it was because I have feelings for her.

None of them reacted. The silence was heavy. Apparently they had all expected to hear this confession. But what followed surprised them even more.

— I married her. So I can’t be blamed for having had relationships outside of marriage.

This time, the siblings exchanged appalled looks, while John smiled, pleased with the reaction to his unexpected confession. Joseph seemed taken aback. The Baptist continued.

— Since you, Joseph, advised me to do this, I don’t think you see any problem with this union.

The information supported the total confusion. This time, it was towards Joseph that Faith and Jacob directed their questioning looks. He felt obliged to argue.

— If it’s true that I advised you to get married as a solution, at no time did you tell me who she was.
— Is she different from anyone else ? Is she not a simple woman ?
— No, John, she’s not. She’s the sinner who will bring the Collapse. She’s Hell itself, the demon we’ve been fighting for more than two months now.
— Why do you keep saying that she must achieve absolution then ? And why did you threaten me with not being able to get through Eden’s Gate if she herself did not succeed ? After all, I was only following your instructions. You told me to love them and to allow them access to forgiveness, which I tried to do. You repeatedly insisted that she must atone for her faults or the world would fall apart. How can you blame me now for working hard to forgive her ?

Joseph was stunned by his younger brother’s repartee. He had always been able to express himself well, but this was the first time he had confronted his brothers and stood up for himself in front of them instead of bowing his head and complying.

The more he spoke, the freer John felt. It was as if a huge burden was being lifted from his chest. Galvanized by his confession and his brothers’ astonishment, he continued.

— I am sincerely doing everything in my power to develop the Project and live up to your expectations. I am still a man, however, and there are some things that are impossible to control, despite all that I have done to fight. Believe me, I have tried many times to turn away from her, but fate has always put her back in my path. When we were reunited a few years ago, I found a reason to live. However, the void I had been trying to fill since childhood was always there. When I started hanging out with the deputy, it was as if that hole in my heart had slowly cauterized.

A touch of ego pushed him to interrupt his speech for a moment.

— You know very well what I am talking about, if you could avoid asking me to detail, I would be grateful. I think I’ve been bullied enough for one day.

A few seconds of silence followed, until Joseph decided to speak again.

— Thank you for your sincerity. I appreciate the fact that you’ve laid out all the circumstances and acknowledged your weaknesses.

John sighed with relief. But Joseph continued.

— But that’s not enough. Words are nothing without actions that back them up. What do you propose to prove to us that you are still faithful to Eden’s Gate and that your… “relationship” has not tainted your will ?

The Baptist did not expect to be asked for an act of redemption. In fact, he had thought Joseph would simply dismiss him from the Project, if not the family. As he did with Holly. Jacob broke the silence.

— What if he gave us a ceremony of atonement worthy of this devil ? That way, he’d complete his mission and preserve the Project, the threat extinguished along with the sinner’s wrath. We could finally move on.

A smile lit up Joseph’s face, and he seemed to like the idea.

— Good, Jacob, very good. That’s a great idea. We’ll hold a public ceremony for the demon’s atonement. John, you will personally take care of her sin. Then your faith in us will be proven and you can be forgiven.

The Baptist was stunned. He did not react.

The three of them left the church, leaving John alone in the aisle. The direction events were taking was far beyond his worst fears. He had recently begun to hope that he would never have to put her through the pain of being skinned. He thought back to the previous day. It was even more painful now to admit that he had agreed to tattoo her again, potentially imposing a second ritual of atonement. What a fucking idiot ! What did I do ?

Outside the chapel, Joseph addressed his elder brother.

— You’re the one who’s going to get her, Jacob.
— Me ? Why don’t you send John ?
— I don’t trust him anymore, that’s why I want to make sure he fulfills his duty. He must prove his loyalty to us. In the meantime, I’d rather be sure that she doesn’t escape us again because of him.
— Well, brother.

Joseph put his forehead against his and left him. Faith joined Jacob on the path.

— Did he ask you to capture her ?
— Yes, he did.
— Please don’t hurt her.

He raised an eyebrow, questioning.

— John cares about her… and she cares about him in the same way.
— That’s just the problem. She’s preventing him from doing his job and participating properly in the development of the Project. The end is near, Faith.
— I know it is. But maybe her feelings for him could make him more involved if they were accepted by the community. If she truly loves him, she will surely not hesitate to give up the resistance and join us.
— Or he may not hesitate to drop us for her ! Don’t forget that he lied to us several times ! On that tattoo story for example…
— What are you talking about ?
— I saw it when I captured her. It’s been a long time since he marked her. They played us for fools trying to make us believe that he tattooed her the other night.
— No, that’s impossible ! I was with her when she got dressed for dinner. I saw with my own eyes that she was in pain as she put on the dress I had lent her. And then there were those blood and ink marks on the lining when I picked it up.
— So he would have marked her one more time ? I wonder what her second sin is.
— Do you know the first one ?
— Of course, since I saw it with my own eyes. Curiosity is a bad sin, Faith.

* * *

Dana was busy finding her way back through the woods when she heard footsteps behind her. Instinctively, she pulled her handgun from her holster and aimed at the suspected source. The hooded man in front of her dropped his bow, raising his arms to the sky in surrender. A voice, this time from behind her, suddenly sounded.

— Tsk tsk, deputy. Still so easy to surprise !

She did not have time to turn around. Jacob had put his arms around her, forcing her to drop the gun that the Chosen one hastened to pick up.

— Follow me wisely. Unless you want to get hurt ?

Putting his money where his mouth was, he bound her wrists with a plastic quick-release band. With no other choice, she complied and walked beside him while he maintained a grip on her forearm.

After only a few hundred meters, the path came to a forest cabin. They stopped on the doorstep. Jacob thanked his henchman and asked him to leave them alone. With a too polite to be sincere gesture, he invited the deputy to enter the house, after having gallantly opened the door.

Once inside, he pushed her to a wooden chair on which he made her sit.

— We need to talk a little. Do you know how much you’ve messed up again ? This time, my family is affected. I can’t accept this situation. You corrupted John and that is very, VERY wrong, deputy.

She smiled wryly at the accusation.

— Joseph has decided to punish you. To punish both of you.

The expression on her face suddenly changed and the grin disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

— He has planned a little ceremony for you. Your atonement will be public. Guess who will give you absolution ?

This time it was him smiling cruelly. He continued.

— There is one thing I would like to know. What sin did you confess him the day we had dinner in the chapel ?

She remained silent. Not only was it none of Jacob’s business, but she didn’t want him to know how involved she was in her relationship with his brother.

Pissed off by her silence, he suddenly grabbed her by her jacket collar and forced her to stand up.

— Don’t you want to tell me anything ? It’s okay, I don’t need your permission to check for myself.

He pushed her until her back violently slammed into the cottage wall. His powerful hands surrounded her throat. Choking definitely runs in the family ! But he didn’t squeeze. He released her neck to grab the flannel shirt and open it roughly, revealing her worn tank top. Jacob smiled when he saw “wrath” beneath her collarbones.

— This one doesn’t seem so relevant anymore. I think “lust” would define you better now. Is that what he wrote ?

She remained silent. Jacob suddenly grabbed the hunting knife on his belt and cut the cloth in one stroke, from her sternum to her navel. She closed her eyes and clenched her jaw.

— Don’t worry, I’m not interested in you, I’m above that.

He grabbed the two torn pieces of fabric and pulled them apart to get a full view of her chest. He did not put a long time to locate the name on her lower abdomen. A smirk split his lips.

— So here we are. Now he feels compelled to mark his possessions. This is even worse than I imagined.

Why do they all automatically think that John has imposed his will on me ?

— He didn’t mark me, I asked him to write that.

Jacob raised an eyebrow. He seemed as amused as he was intrigued.

— Wasn’t it enough to turn him away from his community and family ? You still had to make sure that the entire resistance knew about his weaknesses and betrayal ?
— No one knows. Well, almost nobody.
— What do you mean ?
— Jerome and Grace saw the tattoo. But by a twist of fate. I never meant for that to be the case. It was only meant for me to see. And your brother’s.

Jacob took a few steps back. Relieved, she let the air fill her lungs again.

— You could untie me, right ? We both know I don’t stand a chance against you, unarmed.

He seemed to hesitate for a few seconds, and finally cut her ties. He signaled her to return to her seat and she obeyed.

— You are the only one who knows about the second tattoo. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention it to Joseph.
— You’ve got to be kidding me. What would I be doing this for you for ?
— Maybe because I saved your life in the woods ?
— It’s true I owe you for that. But I can’t do anything for you. When you take off your shirt for your atonement, everyone will see it, even if I don’t say anything until then. And this one will be ripped off you too.

Dana’s features tightened and her knuckles turned white from the pressure of her closed fists. Jacob was right : it would be impossible to hide the inscription at the ceremony.

She tried to concentrate. What can’t be torn off ? She thought back to the horrible scar that John had in the same place as her. A scar can’t be removed. Her eyes lit up. Jacob seemed to sense her change of heart.

— What’s going on ? Did you have an epiphany ?
— Yes, I did. Lend me your knife.

He handed her the weapon, believing it to be safe for a trained soldier like himself. His calm expression became questioning as he watched her turn the weapon against her and thrust the blade into the fragile skin of her belly.

A grin of pain appeared on her face as the blade slowly penetrated her flesh, still bruised from the freshly carved tattoo. Blood instantly began to flow onto her hands and then onto the top of her pants. Quickly, the pain made her fingers tremble, making the operation more and more difficult. She had barely finished cutting the “J” when she was already at her limit.

Her resilience to pain impressed Jacob. He already knew of her toughness and fighting skills, but as a former soldier, he could only respect such determination. Suddenly moved by compassion, he grabbed the weapon and pulled it from her feverish hands.

— Give me that knife.

She looked up at him in astonishment. Despite the tears in her eyes, she discerned the sincerity in Jacob’s gaze and did not resist. She leaned back and gripped the seat of the chair firmly, digging her fingers in as hard as she could.

Jacob applied the blade to the edge of the “O” and continued the letters until the deputy’s lower abdomen was a mass of blood and swollen flesh.

To say she had suffered would be an understatement. Jacob knew the pain of a blade strike. Wanting to inflict it on yourself took courage. Or madness. Or love. Or all of these at the same time.

He realized how involved she had become in the situation. How could anyone get to the point of deciding to mutilate themselves, just so that a previous injury would not be erased from their body ?

The events were beyond him. His instincts were beginning to tell him her feelings for John were genuine and that she was willing to sacrifice a lot for him. Jacob loved his family. He wanted his little brother to be happy with all his heart. He deserved it more than himself and Joseph did, considering the moral and physical torture he had suffered throughout his youth. He had failed to protect him as a child, now he had to do everything he could to spare him.

He observed her. She was visibly close to losing consciousness. He took her livid face in his hands and gave her a few measured slaps.

— Hey, little bird, stay with me. I’ll disinfect it and get you some painkillers.
— No, don’t !

He didn’t understand anything anymore. He tried to be helpful and to relieve her suffering, but she refused his help. Sensing his questioning, she resumed.

— It is important not to take care of a scarification. Otherwise, it will resorb and the skin will heal, leaving little of the original mark. On the opposite, you have to make sure the flesh is bruised as much as possible so that the swelling comes out clearly.

Jacob was flabbergasted by her explanation. She had been in agony when he had opened her up and she was still asking for more. She definitely never ceased to amaze him. This state of mind pleased him. He hoped now that her atonement would allow her to definitively join  the ranks of Eden’s Gate. Her collaboration would be invaluable.

— What should we do, then ?
— Pour an acid substance on it. Lemon, for example.

Jacob got up and went to the kitchen, in search of the citrus fruit. Opening the cupboards one after the other, he didn’t find any, but grabbed an opaque can.

— Would vinegar work too ?
— I think so.

He returned to the main room. She was curled up, her face pale and livid. He had the impression of looking at a future corpse. When he poured the liquid on her open belly, she let out an inhuman howl like Jacob hadn’t heard since his return from Iraq.

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