A few days later, they were back at the compound. Jacob had taken the responsibility of giving the deputy some time off. After all, Joseph wasn’t supposed to know that he hadn’t brought her to him as soon as she was captured.
As soon as they entered the gate, she became agitated. She expressed her desire to meet John before the atonement, a favor Joseph obviously did not grant. The ceremony was set for the following Sunday, the usual day on which Joseph preached to his congregation. He invited them to attend the deputy’s atonement, extolling the merits of confession. Until the fateful date, Dana was confined to the barracks she had once occupied, unable to leave or meet anyone.
On the morning of that day, Faith came to her to lend her a new dress. When she knocked on the door, the deputy did not answer. She took the liberty of entering uninvited and found her sitting on the floor, leaning against the bed. She was sobbing. The siren approached her and crouched down to softly speak to her.
— Dana, what’s wrong ?
— You seriously dare to ask me ? Your psycho brother ordered me to be flayed alive in front of all the freaks in your congregation. And who is to do the tormenting for me ? The only person with whom I have ever had any semblance of a connection. How could it get any worse ?
— Atonement is a blessing. It is about freeing yourself from the sin that is poisoning you. I think it is a gift from God that John is doing it. He will have the privilege of granting you forgiveness and leading you to Eden’s Gate. You must trust him.
— You really are living in a glittery world.
— Maybe, but we all need hope to go on living in this cruel world. I brought you different dresses. Choose the one you like. Jacob told me you were hurt, I’ll help you dress if you want.
The deputy got up with difficulty. The scarring was still extremely painful and prevented any wide movement. She studied the dresses carefully.
— They are all very low cut…
— It is voluntary. But if you don’t mind being undressed in public so John can get to your tattoo, I can bring you some more.
Dana grimaced, before choosing a midnight blue dress. She accepted Faith’s assistance to change.
As soon as she saw the blistered scar, Faith held back a cry of disgust. She deciphered the word written on Dana’s belly before hugging her, taking care not to make contact with the bruised area. She whispered in her ear.
— John is so lucky to have you. I hope Joseph realizes this and lets you guys see each other the way you want to. I know I’m just an add-on to the family, but I want you to know that I’ve considered you my sister for a long time now. You can count on me, no matter what.
She took out a small bottle hidden between two dresses and handed it to the deputy.
— This is bliss. It will ease the pain. Drink it all.
* * *
A few minutes later, Dana walked up the aisle of the chapel, surrounded by two devotees, in the sumptuous midnight blue dress lent by Faith. John was waiting for her by the altar, hands clasped in front of his belt buckle. If the circumstances had been different, one could have thought that a wedding ceremony was taking place in the small church. The thought made her smile inwardly.
She stared intently at the Baptist, who held her gaze just as intently. When she reached him, the two henchmen handed her over to John and retired to sit among the audience. Joseph then spoke, cheered by the followers.
— Dear sisters and brothers. We are gathered here today to witness the atonement of a person who has done great harm to our community.
There was a clamor in the room. The Father signaled to the audience to calm down, then continued.
— Nevertheless, this woman, like all of us, deserves a second chance. For this reason she accepts today to free herself from all sin and to commit herself to the path of Eden’s Gate. I’ll let my brother, John, speak.
The Baptist took hold of the “Book of Joseph” with a trembling hand and approached Dana. His step seemed more hesitant than usual.
Bliss was beginning to take effect, her vision was blurring, and a halo was now forming around John.
— My dear congregants, we are here to witness the will of one who wishes to atone for her sins. Deputy Dana Seed, place your hand on the Word of Joseph and agree to renounce your sins and admit your transgressions.
Stunned whispers arose as he spoke her name. Joseph himself looked at his brother with a questioning look. John ignored him. He held the book out in Dana’s direction, and she placed her palm on it.
In her mind, an avalanche of feelings and questions fought fiercely. She could still say no and refuse to submit to Eden’s Gate. John would certainly mutilate her by force however, as he had done it with Nick Rye. Whether she agreed or not, the outcome would be the same. John’s credibility with his peers would take a hit, however, if she refused. Her lips moved weakly to answer him, in a trembling voice.
It had only taken a few small things. A few seconds to walk up the aisle and a few words spoken were enough to justify a human being skinned alive.
The Baptist and the deputy were still staring at each other intently, as if keeping eye contact could mitigate what would happen next.
John removed the “Book of Joseph” from Dana’s palms and placed it on the stone desk. He placed his fingers on her shoulders and pressed them down to bring her to her knees before him.
He knelt and grabbed her face with both hands. For a split second, she hoped he would kiss her. But he could not do such a thing in front of all the faithful of Eden’s Gate. She saw him reach out to a woman who placed a small knife on his palm. He looked into Dana’s pleading eyes again. Now the tears were shamelessly flowing down her cheeks.
— Please, John. Don’t hurt me.
The Baptist’s lips barely moved as he spoke a sentence she guessed more than she heard. “I’m sorry”. Then the blade penetrated her flesh.
The pain was so intense that it made her scream. But the worst was yet to come. Dana dreaded the moment when John would grab and tear away the portion of skin covered with the tattoo. It stretched from one collarbone to the other, covering a large area.
When his fingers took hold of the end of the word, she thought she would faint. The pain was intense, but the flaying lasted only a second. As soon as the Baptist had torn away the first layer of dermis, the blood began to profusely flow.
The ceremony was well practiced, and a devotee immediately rushed to Dana to cover the gaping wound with a self-adhesive bandage, which was far more painful than the skinning itself. She let out an animalistic howl as John stood up and triumphantly waved his prize at the cheering audience.
Dana’s blood was still warm on his wrists, and he could hear her screaming behind him as the crowd congratulated him on his achievement. At that moment, time seemed to stand still. He hated himself. You always have been a mean child, John.
Joseph, who had been standing back during the atonement, approached the still kneeling deputy and held out his open palms. She grasped them and pulled herself to her feet with his help, tears still streaming down her cheeks. He walked her to the center of the stage so that the congregation could see her sin was no longer there.
Some applause broke out, and then more applause followed, until the entire audience was cheering for the deputy. That was the last thing she saw before she collapsed and lost consciousness.
* * *
John watched over her for hours. He was glad Faith had given her a bliss shot before the ceremony, but it didn’t help to bring her back quickly, and he cursed her for that.
He hadn’t slept a wink all afternoon, sitting on the bed’s edge where she was laid down, holding her hand in his, stroking her hair. Her forehead and temples were burning with fever and she was a restless sleeper.
She finally opened her muddy eyes to look at him. He leaned in to kiss her, but stopped just short of contact, realizing that maybe she didn’t want him anymore after what he’d put her through. She stared at him. Her lips moved weakly. He reached up to hear what she was whispering to him.
— Why are you hurting me like this ?
His eyes met hers.
— I’m so sorry, Dana. I didn’t have a choice.
— Not about this… why am I not allowed to get any kiss from you ?
John smiled. He had his deputy back, still ready with a little cynical remark, even in shock. He approached again to give her the kiss she was asking for, from the end of his lips. She had deserved it, after all.
— You need to rest. Bliss may have relieved the pain, but it’s put you in a nasty coma.
— Thank your sister for that.
— I will. She’s very worried about you, I think she’ll be sure to come see you as soon as I give her permission.
— So you’re the one who decides these things now ?
— I have full authority over you, deputy.
He had said the last words with a tone of amusement, which made Dana smile. She continued, very seriously this time.
— There’s something that would really help me recover quickly.
— What can I do for you ?
— Get under the blanket and hold me tight.
— I can’t do that. The doctor will be here any moment. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if they found me in your bed ? You have no idea how much I want to fulfill your request.
No sooner had he finished his sentence than the door opened to reveal a man in a white coat. He spoke to Dana as he set his briefcase on the bedside table and prepared his equipment.
— Oh, you’re awake? That’s good. How are you feeling ?
— Half knocked out. And the wound is burning. Beyond that, I feel pretty good.
— I’ll change your bandage and disinfect the area. I’m pretty sure you didn’t get proper care after the “incident”.
He gave John a stern look. The man standing before them was once a family doctor and upstanding citizen of Fall’s End. He had been forced to join Eden’s Gate when his wife and children were taken from him by the cult. As such, he was not really a supporter of the cult but cooperated under pressure.
He knew of the Baptist’s role in the atonement and, although he had not attended the ceremony, was certain that it was his work. He wondered how this woman could accept that her tormentor was sitting in the same room with her.
— Mr. Seed, please leave while I treat my patient.
John gave him an outraged look.
— I’m not going out. This is my wife.
The doctor looked stunned for a split second. He turned to Dana.
— Would you like him to stay ?
— Yes, doctor. He’s told you the truth.
— Beyond the effects of the drug, you seem to be running a fever. I’ll take your temperature.
She let him do it, reassured by the Baptist’s presence.
— You are over 40°. It’s borderline unconsciousness. I’m going to give you something, but I don’t understand this condition. Were you ill before this ceremony was imposed on you ?
— No, I was not sick. Just scared.
— Were you injured ?
— Let me examine you.
He leaned over her to open her dress, but John grabbed his wrist to stop him.
— Don’t touch her ! She’s my wife !
— Mr. Seed, I’m a doctor ! If you want her to recover, you’ll have to let me work !
The Baptist released the practitioner’s hand, focusing his gaze on Dana’s face.
— Oh, my God ! What happened to you ?
John gasped and looked up to where the doctor was looking. Holy shit ! The inscription that was once his name was bloody, blistered and festering. It was a mess.
— Dana, who did this to you ?
— No one did.
— Tell me !
— I did it. Jacob helped me.
The Baptist clenched his fists.
— This time it’s gone too far ! Why did you do that ? And why did my brother get involved ?
— You’re the one who told me. A scarification can’t be removed. I don’t want what you carved into me to be taken away.
He didn’t know what to think. He was angry, sad and proud of her all at the same time. His self-esteem was singing. She didn’t want his name to be taken away. This cocktail of strong emotions prevented wrath from taking over. John remained surprisingly calm as he searched for a suitable response.
The doctor resumed.
— This wound is infected. That’s why you have a fever. I’ll take care of it.
— No ! Don’t take it away from me !
— I’m not going to remove anything, don’t worry. I’ll just clean and disinfect it. If I leave it like this, you’ll get worse and the tissue will rot.
She gave John a pleading look.
— Let him do it, wrath. You did the same thing for me when I was being stupid in the watchtower.
She smiled nervously. The Baptist continued.
— Be brave. You have been so far. I’m staying with you, you can squeeze my hand as hard as you like.
She squeezed his hand as the doctor grabbed a bottle of disinfectant.
* * *
Dana stayed for a while for observation at the compound’s clinic, and then Joseph offered to move her into a Henbane cottage that had recently been vacated by its occupants. He hoped to convince her Eden’s Gate was generous and that she would join his cause. And incidentally, to keep an eye on her.
The autumn had given place to colder winter temperatures. December was beginning, and both the resistance and the cult had slowed down their activities. Without Dana in the equation, the Collapse seemed to be in status quo, so Joseph saw no reason to eliminate her.
The resistance, for its part, didn’t seem particularly concerned about not running into its fetish deputy, but since Eden’s Gate wasn’t active, it had no reason to worry about her absence. Moreover, it was conceivable that Grace and Jerome had informed the rest of the resistance about the relationship Dana maintained with the Baptist. She was now afraid of coming face to face with one of her former allies.
Besides, it was difficult for her to know where she stood now. If she did not want to join Eden’s Gate, she could not either boast to be completely acquired with the cause of the resistance. She had recently spent more time with the cult than with her friends.
With Christmas just a few weeks away, John decided to visit her to make sure she had recovered and, although he didn’t want to admit it to himself, to spend some time with her.
When he showed up at the cabin, she threw herself into his arms with no regard for her still raw bust. They stayed long minutes on the doorstep, hugging each other as hard as they could under the first winter snowflakes.
They moved into the living room and Dana lit the fireplace. John carefully watched the room.
— Oh, you decorated a Christmas tree.
— Yes. I figured that just because the conditions here weren’t ideal, it didn’t mean we had to completely abandon tradition.
— You’re right.
He walked over to the tree and grasped the end of a branch between his fingers. He brought it up to his face to smell the distinctive scent. I so wanted to decorate a tree with my family.
— It’s a good thing I have something to add to it.
She looked at him, intrigued, as he took a thin package out of his inner coat pocket. Smiling at her, he slid it to the tree’s base.
— What’s this ? Is it for me ?
— You’ll find out at Christmas.
She seemed annoyed by the answer, but didn’t let it faze her. Resolute, she got up and went to her room to return with a small, well-wrapped package, which she put under the tree next to the Baptist’s. John raised an eyebrow at her.
— You’re full of surprises, deputy.
— You don’t have a monopoly on that. Are you staying for dinner ?
— If you don’t have plans tonight. Maybe I could even spend the night.
Dana was pleased with the idea. She had missed him terribly during her recovery. His closeness warmed her, and she longed to feel his skin against hers. She could hardly contain herself, so she offered to have dinner soon so they could spend time together afterwards, which he agreed to. They quickly ate the remains of the midday meal and sat side by side on the sofa.
She approached him and passed her arms around his neck to attract him to her, pressing tenderly her forehead against his. He let himself do it obediently. But he could not restrain himself a long time, and the situation quickly slipped. He became bold and carried her to lie on the thick carpet in front of the fireplace. Dana wouldn’t resist him. She was dying to feel him against and inside her.
Faithful to himself, the Baptist wasted no time in undressing her, ripping off her blouse that seemed to take too long to undo for his taste. He feared to put the eyes on the scar that he had imposed to her, reminding him the pain that she had undergone under his hands. He tried not to show anything of his embarrassment, reserving however the more abrupt contacts with the rest of her body.
Dana didn’t care about the skinning or the pain it might cause. All she wanted was to have him touch her and take her, no matter how brutal he might be.
When he undid his embrace to lean against the sofa, she literally jumped on him to impale herself between his thighs. She took the initiative to lead the pace, controlling the situation, which did not displease John.
Only their satisfied sighs and his name, which Dana murmured at regular intervals, occasionally interrupted the cracking of logs in the hearth. The deputy’s fingers were firmly gripping the Baptist’s hair, while his lips avidly roamed her throat and chest, his phalanges sinking in the delicate flesh of her ribs. She moaned at each of John’s thrusts, exciting him a little more every second. It’s so good to have you back. I missed you so much.
He could not hold back his ecstasy for a long time and quickly exploded in her, for her greatest pleasure. She loved that he came in her, which gave her the impression he unconditionally belonged to her.
Despite the late hour, neither of them wanted to leave the other’s arms. They lay cuddled for a long time in front of the fireplace, snuggled together under a blanket. John covered Dana’s face with kisses, his fingers tangled in her hair. She wished she could spend the rest of her life like this, heart to heart and skin to skin.
Her gaze went to the Christmas tree and the two presents at its base. Not holding on any longer, she suddenly stood up to face John.
— I don’t want to wait for Christmas to offer you what I have for you.
— You seem to be in a hurry, deputy. Is it that urgent ?
Seeing her annoyed face, he continued.
— Open mine first.
With a cheerful face again, she kissed him quickly before dressing up awkwardly. She rushed to the tree to seize the nicely wrapped package. She unpacked it carefully. She pulled out a satin and lace fabric. John smiled when she brandished the nightie he had specially chosen for her. She looked at him with a questioning air.
— Is it for me or for you ?
— For you. But I must confess that I particularly liked to imagine you in it. I can’t wait for you to put it on so I can admire the result.
She hugged him tenderly.
— Thank you, John. It’s beautiful.
— You needed something as pretty as you are to wear. And then, you will stop stealing my shirts.
The compliment made her blush. Once again, she was quite happy to have her face buried against the Baptist’s throat, which prevented him from noticing her emotion. As soon as her heartbeat had returned to an acceptable rhythm, she withdrew from his embrace.
— Now it’s my turn !
Putting her money where her mouth was, she grabbed the gift she had carefully wrapped and handed it to John with a trembling hand, excited and extremely stressed at the same time.
— Merry Christmas, darling.
He stared at her in amazement. Why is she so stressed ?
— Darling ? Really ? Are you getting sentimental ?
— Just for the holidays, don’t worry.
A smile on his lips, the Baptist seized the small package. What could she give him that he didn’t already have ? He felt almost uncomfortable for her. From the size of the package, he guessed it was probably a pen. It made sense for a lawyer responsible for signing all the contracts in the area.
He quickly tore off the silk ribbon and pretty paper that protected the gift. He looked stunned as he observed the elongated object in the palm of his hand. He did not understand its purpose. It did look like a pen, but not a very pretty one.
Noticing his embarrassment, she came to his rescue. Pointing to a small rectangle on the side of the object, she commented in a shy voice.
— Two lines, positive.
He stared at her with a blank look, not sure he understood what she was getting at or the meaning of her explanation. He looked at the object again, his face inexpressive.
Dana tenderly placed her hand on John’s cheek and kissed it. She slid to his ear to whisper.
— I’m sure you’ll be the best father ever.
Shocked, the Baptist stood still and silent. The announcement had shaken him and turned his whole world upside down. He had never been attached to anyone in his life, and he had never even considered starting a family. He barely knew the meaning of the word until Joseph brought them together and founded the Project.
Not for a single second he had expected this news, which however appeared to him now obvious considering the intimate relation he had maintained with her for more than three months now. If he had quickly taken the shock of the announcement, or at least had let it appear, it was now up to his mind to digest the consequences and to find a way to face it. He maintained absolute control and showed no emotion or concern. Once again, his chameleon-like ability came in handy.
— After such a gift, mine looks ridiculous !
The fact that he finally responded reassured Dana.
— No, John. Your gift is beautiful and I like it very much. I like you very much.
— Are you sure I’m the father ?
— Of course I am ! Who else ? There’ s only you since I got here.
— Why didn’t you warn me that you weren’t protecting yourself from this ?
— You never asked me. What about you ? Why didn’t you protect yourself from this ?
In fact, neither of them had thought they would live long enough to get into this situation.
The Baptist grabbed his clothes and got dressed, suddenly standing up.
— Where are you going ?
— I must get back to the compound, Joseph asked me to help with his tomorrow sermon.
— I thought you were spending the night with me ?
— Sorry, that story had totally slipped my mind.
He headed for the door, Dana in tow. He was already outside when she grabbed his arm.
— John, are you all right ?
— Of course I am. Don’t worry about it. See you soon ?
As if to reassure her, he placed a chaste kiss on her forehead before getting into his pick-up.
She watched him drive off into the night. She felt guilty about having inflicted to him such a blow of stress whereas they were supposed to spend their first evening together for a long time. But anyway, it would have been necessary to announce him the news one day, sooner or later. The outcome of their relationship, however, suddenly seemed uncertain, not to say non-existent.
You are really stupid, poor girl. What possessed you to think that the announcement would have pleased him ? What kind of world do you live in ? She couldn’t contain the tears that were patiently waiting to escape.