The things I’ve seen are burned into me, like scars that refuse to fade.
Before, she lived inside the fence. Before, she was never allowed to leave the property, never allowed to talk to Outsiders, never allowed to speak her mind. Because Father John controlled everything—and Father John liked rules. Disobeying Father John came with terrible consequences.
But there are lies behind Father John’s words. Outside, there are different truths.
Then came the fire.
“This offers a fascinating look at emotional manipulation, calculated lies, and physical intimidation and punishment…Hill treats his story, based on the true events of the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Texas, with respect and dignity” —Booklist review
“An astonishing saga of suffering and joy, guilt, evil, redemption and truth.” —Kirkus, STARRED review
“Genuinely different…thrilling and spellbinding!”—Patrick Ness, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“The gripping story of survival and escape…It will keep you up late until you get to the very end.”—Maureen Johnson, New York Times bestselling author of Truly Devious
Read an excerpt
I sprint across the yard, my eyes streaming, my heart pounding in my chest.
The noise of the gunfire is still deafening, and I hear—I actually hear—bullets whizzing past me, their low whines like the speeded-up buzz of insects, but I don’t slow down, and I don’t change course. The Chapel is burning out of control, its roof engulfed by roaring fire and sending up a huge black plume of smoke, and the amplified voice of the Government booms across the compound, repeating its demand over and over again.
“Put down your weapons and come forward slowly with your hands in the air!”
Nobody is listening. Not the other Governments, and definitely not any of my Brothers and Sisters.
In the distance, back near the Front Gate, the tank rumbles forward, crushing the flimsy wire fence and churning the desert floor.
Somewhere, over the engines and the endless rattle of gunfire, I can hear screams of pain and pleading shouts for help, but I force myself to ignore them and keep going: my gaze is fixed on the wooden cabins at the western edge of the Base.
I trip over something.
My feet tangle, and I go sprawling onto the cracked blacktop of the yard. Pain crunches through me as my shoulder hits the ground, but I grit my teeth and get back on my feet and look to see what I fell over.
Alice is lying on her back, her hands clutching her stomach.
Her shirt has turned red, and she’s lying in a pool of blood that seems too big to have all come out of one person. She’s still alive though. Her eyes are dim, but they find mine, and she looks at me with an expression I can’t describe. There’s pain there, a lot of pain, and shock, and fear, and something that looks like confusion, like she wants to know how things ever came to this.
I hold her gaze. I want to stay with her, to tell her it’s all right and that she’s going to be okay, but it isn’t all right, nothing is, and I don’t know very much about bullet wounds, but I don’t think she is going to be okay.
I’m pretty sure she’s going to die.
I stare at her, wasting seconds that the still-functional bit of my brain screams at me for wasting, then run toward the west barracks. Alice’s eyes widen as I start to turn away, but I don’t see anger in them. I think she understands what I have to do.
That’s what I tell myself, at least.
A figure emerges from the swirling smoke, and I skid to a halt, my hands raised. But it isn’t one of the Governments, with their black helmets and goggles and guns. It’s Amos, his eyes red and puffy, one arm limp at his side, a pistol trembling in his good hand.
“Where’s Father John?” he asks, his voice hoarse and torn. “Have you seen him?”
I shake my head and try to circle around him, but he grabs my arm and pulls me close.
“Where is he? Where is The Prophet?” he rasps.
“I don’t know!” I scream, because the tank has reached the yard, and the gunfire is heavier than ever, and the fire is leaping from building to building faster than I can follow.
I push Amos as hard as I can, and he stumbles backward. He swings the pistol at me, but I’m already moving. I hear shots behind me, but none of them find their target before I plunge into the smoke.
It’s instantly hard to breathe. I clamp one of my hands over my mouth and nose, but the thick, bitter smoke slips between my fingers, and I start to cough. I see my fallen Brothers and Sisters all around me as I run, dark shapes I stagger left and right to avoid. A few are moving, dragging themselves across the ground or twitching and spasming like they’re having a fit, but most of them aren’t.
Most of them are still.
The west barracks appear in front of me, their walls and flat roofs wreathed in acrid smoke. The gunfire is constant behind me, and with so many bullets flying through the air, it feels like a matter of time until the inevitable happens. As long as I unlock the cabins first, I don’t care.
I really don’t.
I stumble out of the worst of the smoke and toward the nearest cabin, fumbling the skeleton key out of my pocket. I grab the padlock hanging from the door, and there’s a sizzling sound. I don’t understand what has happened—until pain explodes through me, and I wrench my hand away. Most of my palm stays stuck to the metal lock. I fall to my knees, clutching my ruined left hand against my stomach, and a scream that doesn’t sound human bursts out of my mouth.
It’s overwhelming. The pain.
It feels like someone has pushed my hand into a jar of acid and is holding it there, and as my brain tries to process the agony, everything else fades away: the smell of the smoke, the heat of the fire, the noise of the guns. Gray creeps in from all sides, like the volume of my senses is being turned down. Then something shoves me from behind, and everything comes hurtling back as I tumble to the ground.
A Government is standing over me, its face hidden behind its mask, the gaping muzzle of its gun pointing between my eyes.
“Hands where I can see them!” It’s a man’s voice. “Show me your hands!”
They tremble as I hold them up. “Please,” I say, my voice a raw croak. “Children. There are children in these cabins. Please.”
“Shut up!” he yells. “Not another word!”
“Please,” I repeat. “In the cabins. You have to help them.”
The Government glances at the buildings. My head is spinning, and my stomach is churning, and I feel like I’m going to pass out from the pain screaming in my hand, but I force my eyes to stay open, force my reeling mind to focus on the dark figure above me.
“Padlocks,” I whisper, and hold out the skeleton key. “Please…”
My strength fails me. The Government looks at the cabin. Looks down at me. Looks at the cabin.
“Shit!” he shouts, then grabs the key from my hand and spins toward the door. I watch him grip the padlock with his gloved hand and slide the key into the lock, and I wonder for an awful moment whether this is all going to have been a waste of time, whether there are some locks that even a skeleton key can’t open. Then the cylinder turns, and the padlock springs loose. The Government hauls the door open, and my coughing, spluttering Brothers and Sisters come flooding out, their eyes red and streaming with tears.
“Go to the Front Gate,” I manage to croak. “Stay together. Put your hands up…”
At the back of the crowd, I see Honey, and I feel something in my chest that overwhelms the pain in my hand. Her eyes are swollen and puffy, and her skin is pale, but her mouth and jaw are set in familiar lines of determination. She’s breathing, if nothing else.
I wasn’t sure she would be.
She helps the last few crying, panicking children out of the cabin and leads them south, toward the Front Gate. The Government races to the next cabin, shouting into his radio for backup. Something breaks loose inside me, a surge of relief so powerful it’s almost physical. It breathes new life into my exhausted muscles, and I drag myself into a sitting position.
The children make their way across the yard, their little hands raised in surrender, until a rush of Governments come sprinting out of the smoke and scoop up my Brothers and Sisters and carry them out through the gaping holes in the fence. I can hear them crying and shrieking for their parents, and my heart breaks for them, but they’re alive, they’re still alive, and that’s all that matters, that’s the only thing that matters as the world burns.
I hear a scream, loud and high-pitched enough to cut through the gunfire and the roar of the inferno, and I turn my head toward it. Near the blazing ruins of the Chapel, two of the Governments have caught hold of Luke and lifted him off the ground by his arms and legs. He’s thrashing in their grip, howling and bellowing for them to put him down, to let him go with the others, to let him Ascend.
His voice, full of fury and fervor and desperate, frantic panic, is the last thing I hear before everything goes dark.
…my hand feels like it’s wrapped in fire. My eyes open and everything is white and there’s a beeping noise and something that has no face looms over me and I try to scream but nothing happens. I’m so scared I can’t even think. My eyes roll back and…
…a man looks down at me, and his face is just eyes above a white mask. He shows me a huge needle, and I just stare at it because I’m too scared to move, and when he pushes it into my arm I don’t even feel it because the pain in my hand is still so huge that it blocks everything else out. I know what doctors are from when I was little and TV was still allowed, but I’ve never seen one in real life until now. The Prophet is screaming in my head that doctors are agents of THE GOVERNMENT, that every one of them is a SERVANT OF THE SERPENT, and his voice rattles and shakes my brain, and my stomach churns, and I’m so scared I can’t even breathe while the doctor tapes the needle that’s inside my arm to my skin and connects it to a tube that leads to a bag of milky white liquid. He says something I don’t understand, and then the liquid starts to flow. I watch it creep down the tube toward my arm. I can’t move a single muscle, but I manage to form a thought over the noise of Father John howling in my head: I wonder what is going to happen when the white liquid goes inside me, and I wonder if I’m still going to be me the next time I wake up…
…the lights above me are blinding, but the pain is much less, and the plastic bag at the end of the tube is empty. I can just about raise my head far enough to see the big mitten of bandages that has been wrapped around my left hand. Sometimes a doctor stands next to my bed and stares at me and sometimes I hear raised voices in the distance and sometimes I start crying and can’t stop. I’m too hot and too cold and everything is wrong and I really want to go home, because even that was better than this. A man wearing a hat and a uniform asks me my name, but Father John roars in my head, so I don’t answer. He asks again, and I don’t answer again, and he rolls his eyes and walks away…
…a woman in a uniform tells someone to sit me up. Hands reach underneath me, and fingers press into my skin and drag me along the bed until I’m propped against a pillow. The woman in the uniform says, “That’s better,” and I almost laugh because nothing is better, nothing is even remotely close to better. “Can you tell me who started the fire?” she asks, and I shake my head. “Who handed out the guns?” I shake my head. “Did you see John Parson after the shooting started?” I shake my head. “What happened inside the main house? What did you do in there?” I shake my head. She stares at me, and when she speaks again, her voice is cold. “People are dead, girl,” she says. “A lot of people. You need to start talking.” She leans over me. I don’t know what’s she’s going to do, so I turn my head away. I see a gold badge on her belt stamped with the words Layton County Sheriff’s Department, and my heart stops dead in my chest and then I hear myself screaming, and the woman in the uniform jumps back, her eyes wide with shock. I hear running footsteps, and my heart starts back up. I thrash on the bed and scream and scream. I feel hands pin my arms and legs, and a doctor lowers another needle toward me, and…
…the faces of my Brothers and Sisters swarm out of the darkness, people I’ve known my whole life, their hair on fire, their skin melting off their skulls, and they’re screaming two words over and over and over again: Your fault your fault your fault your fault YOUR FAULT. I turn away from them and try to run, but the ground turns to quicksand beneath my feet. I sink to my ankles as fingertips brush my shoulders and the back of my neck and I’m terrified, but I can’t scream because my mouth won’t open. All I can do is wade through inky blackness, dragging myself forward, trying to find the way back…
…a man wearing a dark suit stands beside my bed. I’m soaked with sweat, and my hand really hurts, like it’s covered with biting insects, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired. My body feels like it is made of lead and concrete, and my eyelids are the heaviest things in the whole world. The man tells me I’m being moved and I try to ask where, but all that comes out—as Father John bellows in my head Never talk to Outsiders, not under any circumstances—is a rasping whisper. The man says he doesn’t know, and I summon every last bit of strength I have left and ask him who made it out of the fire. He grimaces and walks away…
…there’s a paintbrush in my hand, and it’s dripping with cornflower blue. I know I’m dreaming, but I don’t care because I don’t want to wake up. I paint the wooden wall in front of me, and I hear the distant crash of waves at the base of the cliff, and I smell smoke as it rises from the chimney, and I know that if I look down, I’ll see green grass beneath my feet, but I don’t look down. I paint the wooden board in front of me and the one next to it and the one next to that…
…a different man in an identical dark suit reads a list of names from a piece of paper. I hear Honey and Rainbow and Lucy and Jeremiah, and I burst into tears of relief. The man gives me the first smile I’ve seen since I’ve been lying on this bed, and he carries on reading names, but not for long. My relief gives way to grief, and my tears keep coming because the list is so very, very short…
…the ceiling slides by as two doctors wheel my bed along a corridor and into an empty metal box that shudders and rattles and makes my stomach spin. I try to reach out for the walls to steady myself, but one of the doctors pushes my arms back onto the bed, and my left hand howls with pain, and I cry out. The doctor says, “Sorry,” but his eyes are cold, and his mouth is hidden behind his mask. There’s a beep and a jolt and a rush of cool air, and then I’m moving again. I see a sliver of sky, as blue as the wall in my dream, before I’m lifted and rolled into another metal box, although this one has shelves full of boxes and bottles and machines I don’t recognize. There’s a rumble beneath me as an engine starts up somewhere close by, and it sounds a bit like the red pickup that Amos used to drive, but it’s much louder, and it sounds angry…
…a woman with a kind face wearing a white uniform helps me up from the bed I’ve been lying on ever since I woke up and gently lowers me onto a different one in a square white room with a window set high up in one wall. She tells me to press the orange button next to the door if I need anything, and a lump fills my throat. I ask her not to leave me, and she hugs me, and I start crying again. The voice in the back of my head gets really angry because I haven’t cried this much since I was a little girl, but I can’t help it. The woman with the kind face shushes me and strokes my hair and tells me it’s okay, everything is going to be okay, she’ll be right there if I need her, then gently slides out of my arms and gives me a smile before she walks out of the room, closing the door behind her. I lie down on the bed and I hear a heavy metallic thud as a lock slides into place…
Meet the Author
Will Hill grew up in the northeast of England and worked as a bartender, bookseller, and in publishing before quitting to write full-time. He lives in East London. Visit him at willhillauthor.com.
Connect with the author via Twitter, his Website, or Instagram.
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