Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Cult

I.

It had been terrible from the start. He knew it was a disaster, knew from the very beginning, maybe even from the very first instant, that they were not, no matter what she claimed, meant for each other, that he should get away from her as fast as he could, if not faster. And yet, somehow, he couldn’t. He’d always experienced a certain amount of inertia, but it was something other than that. What exactly it was, though, he wasn’t sure.

After a few weeks, he knew not only that they weren’t meant to be together but that he didn’t even like her, but by then she had already moved in. The months that followed — the whole relationship if he was being honest with himself — had been like being brainwashed, if you could be brainwashed while still knowing with a painful clarity what was happening to you. It was like he was watching someone else move from humiliation to humiliation, but was powerless to do anything to stop it. But the problem was that that someone else was not someone else: it was him.

No, they never should have been together in the first place. He knew that even then, but he couldn’t do anything to stop it. If she hadn’t stabbed him, they’d probably be together still. Even the stabbing had been just barely enough to propel him out of the relationship. Even lying there on the floor, clutching his side, waiting for her to call the ambulance, he had already begun to forgive her, to consider how her stabbing him had been, in a way, if you really thought about it, his own fault. And she hadn’t been trying to really hurt him — if she’d been trying to really hurt him she would have used the butcher knife. No, she had used just a little knife, not even as long as a steak knife, a knife he didn’t even know the name of. How was she to blame if the knife had been sharper than she expected?

Of course, she had said none of this to him — he had thought it all out for himself, had even said some of it to her before he passed out the first time. No, it took his friends days if not weeks to begin to convince him that even if she hadn’t said it she’d made of him the kind of person who would say it for her. She had gotten into his head and rewired it, changed it. So much so that when he came conscious again and found she wasn’t there, he hadn’t told himself She’s deserted me or She’s fled because she’s afraid she’ll be arrested for stabbing me. No, instead he thought, She must have gone for help. It took passing out twice more before he could bring himself to crawl across the floor and pull the phone off the coffee table and dial 911. Not because, he told himself even as he dialed it, he thought that she hadn’t done it, but only because if both she and he called an ambulance would be more likely to come.

• • • •

It took weeks, but in the end they convinced him. She had never called 911. She had stabbed him and then fled, perhaps thinking she’d killed him. Even then, he might not have been convinced if he hadn’t realized that she’d had the presence of mind to pack up her few possessions and take them with her when she left. Simply fleeing he might have been able to forgive, but fleeing with all your clothes and worldly goods was another story.

Even then, he might have forgiven her had she called, had her voice again activated what he’d come to think of as the control mechanism she had rigged in his mind that kept him in exile from himself. But his friends, his true friends, the ones who nursed him back to health, the ones that stayed in the hospital beside him day after day after the stomach wound turned septic and he nearly died, hid his cell phone. If she called, they deleted her calls, and when he asked about her they told him to fuck off. They had given him tough love, but that was what he needed to climb out of the trough that had been their relationship. And once they had given him back his phone, the few times she had called they had been there and had taken the phone bodily from him, had told her that he didn’t want to talk, that she should not call again, that she should never call again, that if she called even once more he would press charges. And soon even if they weren’t there, he could simply not answer the call of his own accord, could simply delete the message.

After a while she stopped calling. He felt great relief. From time to time, at greater and greater intervals, he wondered what had happened to her, but then, soon — even though a few months before he wouldn’t have thought it possible — he stopped thinking about her altogether.

II.

He was driving and his phone was ringing, but no name was coming up above the number. Unlisted. It was not his local area code, but maybe was somewhere close, Pennsylvania maybe, unless he was confused and it was Ohio. Probably a telemarketer. So he didn’t answer. It rang until voicemail picked up, but nobody left a message. So, a telemarketer. Or an election pollster. Or maybe some sort of robot call. He let the phone fall into the passenger seat and kept driving.

A few minutes later the phone started up again, buzzing against the fabric of the seat. He just kept driving, glancing over at its screen until the buzzing stopped. Again, no message left.

When the same number came up a third time, he considered powering the phone down, but his hand was already reaching for it, raising it to his ear.

“Hello?” he said. “I think you must have the wrong number.”

But no, she did not have the wrong number: she knew exactly who she was calling. The last thing he had considered was that it could be her. But her was exactly who it was.

• • • •

She was calling from a convenience store, she explained. God, she said, how she missed him, she couldn’t believe she finally got through, how great it was to hear his voice! Had they been keeping her from him? She really needed him.

Blood was beating in his ears. He hadn’t managed to utter a word.

“I joined a cult,” she told him. “I just up and joined it.”

“Excuse me?” he said. His mouth was dry and the words came out sounding strange.

“Of course at the time I didn’t think it was a cult, but now I see it was. They kicked me out.” She laughed. “Who gets fucking exiled of a cult?” she said. “Me, I guess. I was always —”

“You must have the wrong number,” he tried again.

“Wrong number?” she said, and her voice took on a hard edge. “I recognize your voice. It’s me, Star.”

“Star?” he said, genuinely confused.

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “That’s the name I took. You’ll have to get used to it. I’m not going back to Tammy. I always hated that name. And Tamara’s even worse. They can exile me from their fucking cult, but they can’t take away my new name.”

She stopped speaking. He didn’t say anything, just swallowed. He kept the phone pressed tight to his ear.

“Hello?” she said. “Hello? You didn’t hang up, did you?”

He hung up.

• • • •

Later, after the worst had happened, he told himself that if only he hadn’t been alone and driving, he would have been okay. Or even if he’d been driving, if only he hadn’t been on the turnpike and had had an exit or a place he could have pulled off, he would have been okay. If he was honest with himself, he didn’t know if this was true, but it made him feel better to think it.

She called back less than thirty seconds later. He didn’t answer it. Then she called again, and again, and again. I should roll down the window and throw the phone out, he thought. But it was a new phone, still under contract: he couldn’t bring himself to do it. In the course of eight minutes she called fifteen times, and each time the phone rang he felt a little piece of himself weaken.

After four or five minutes he knew he’d pick up, but still tried to resist, hoping that she’d give up and stop calling. If she gave up, he could still be saved.

But no, she was persistent. He tried, as the phone kept ringing, to plan out what he was going to tell her. He would tell her that he wasn’t her friend any more, that he didn’t want to talk to her. He would ask her to have the simple human decency to never call him again. He would remind her how she had stabbed him, and not only stabbed him but stabbed him and fled and left him for dead. How could she expect him to ever talk to her ever again? What was wrong with her?

And yet, when he finally did answer, he could not bring himself to say any of this. Indeed, at first he said nothing at all.

What she said, was, “What happened, did your phone go dead?

“Cell phones just aren’t reliable,” she said. “Which carrier do you have? Do you still have the same one as when we were together? I tried to get you to change it then, do you remember? I bet you never did.”

“Tammy . . .” he started.

“Star,” she said. “Who’s this Tammy? There’s no Tammy here. It’s Star, the name is Star.”

“The thing is —”

“Did I tell you I was in a cult?” she said, a sharp edge to her voice. “The Children of Light, they’re called. How do you think I ended up there? Whose fault was that?”

It’s your fault, a small voice in his head was already saying, a voice that he’d thought had long ago been throttled out of existence. You drove her to it. At least the voice was still saying “you,” he told himself. When it started saying “I” then he would be in real trouble.

She waited for him to answer and, when he didn’t, said in a softer voice, “I need someone to come get me.”

“Come get you,” he repeated flatly.

“I need you to come,” she said. “I need you.”

“No,” he said, ignoring the dissenting voice growing inside his head. “Absolutely not.”

“I don’t have anybody else,” she said. “I only have you.”

“You don’t have me,” he said.

“Look,” she said, “I don’t like this any better than you do, but I don’t know where else to turn. If you just do this for me, I’ll never ask anything else of you again.”

“Never?” he asked, but he knew from how quickly she answered yes that she was lying.

“No,” he said. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this.”

“Thank you,” she said, ignoring him. Very quickly she spat out an address, a little convenience store near the Pennsylvania border. “I’m counting on you,” she said, and then, before he could say anything else, she hung up the phone.

III.

He tried to call back the payphone, but nobody answered. Typical, he thought, just like her. He tried not to go, really he did, but it was too late, the damage was done. A part of him, an admittedly infinitesimal part, thought that it was just possible that there had been a reception problem, that she did, honestly, think that he was coming. It was ridiculous, the rest of him knew, but that doubt, no matter how small it was, was not something that he could navigate smoothly past.

He kept thinking of her, alone, waiting at the convenience store, night coming, nowhere for her to go. She was a terrible person, he knew that — she had stabbed him and left him — but if he didn’t go, wouldn’t that make him a horrible person too?

He wasn’t a horrible person, he knew it. And he could prove it. He could just go and get her, just drive her somewhere, and then his obligation would be done. Then, he told himself, he’d never have to see her again.

At the next exit he got off the turnpike and went back the other way.

• • • •

It took four hours, each one harder on him than the one before. The farther he went, the more he felt like his mind was no longer his own, like he was once again a man driven out of his own body, like once again she, Tammy, or rather now she, Star, was in charge.

The whole drive he turned over in his head what he might say to her and what she was likely to say back, how the conversation might turn and twist and where in the end it might possibly end up. But no matter how he turned and twisted it, no matter how generously he slathered it with luck, no matter how willfully he tried to squint away what she really was and the control she had over him, he could not see any way in which things would turn out well for him. At best, at absolute best, he would see her and it would devastate him. Even if it did turn out that she really was asking just one more thing, that after this she would be willing to walk away and let him go, it would still take him weeks, if not months, to recover.

And that was only the best possibility. Chances were he’d be back in a relationship with her, suffering for months, if not years, until the time that she once again stabbed him and, probably, this time killed him.

For a while he tried not to think about it, but how could he help it? He turned on the radio as loud as he could, tried even for a few miles to sing along to drown out his thoughts, but all the songs were about mending shattered relationships. They were giving the wrong part of his subconscious ammunition.

When he stopped for gas at the service area just shy of Buffalo, he got out and stretched his legs. He used the bathroom and then sat in the food court for a while. On a whim, he looked up “Children of Light” on his phone. Nothing listed as a cult, but there was a collective on the edge of Pennsylvania. Non-religious hippies, it seemed, running a farm and a craft store. Hardly a cult. Idealistic anarchists at best. Not the kinds of people to kick anybody out unless they absolutely had to. But knowing Tammy, knowing Star, they had probably had to.

He tried again the phone number she had called from, but still got nobody. He climbed back into the car, kept driving.

• • • •

It was dark by the time he reached the convenience store. It was at the corner of a two-lane state highway and one of the long roads dividing one set of farms from another that came in these parts only about every mile or so. There wasn’t much else to be seen beyond farmland. The lot of the convenience store was lit by a single sickly floodlight rigged on one corner of the roof.

She was sitting there on the edge of the curb just below the payphone, her arms wrapped around her knees, her back against the building wall, staring straight ahead. Next to her was a well-worn paper bag, clothes spilling out of the top of it. When he pulled in, she put a hand up to her face to block the light. She looked, he thought, harmless. Deceptively so.

Watching her, he suddenly remembered the strange way when they first kissed she had drawn her hands over and around his body, her fingers whispering just over his clothes, touching but not touching, like she was making a cage around him that was only just barely larger than his body.

He put the car in park and turned off the lights. He waited, but she didn’t move. Maybe she’s dead, he thought hopefully.

But she was not dead. From time to time she moved a little. Maybe she was asleep? But no, he could see the gleam of her eyes; they were open.

She wants me to get out and come to her, he thought. A dull anger began to grow within him. He would just wait her out, he told himself, he was not her slave.

But a moment later, he could not stop his hand from opening the door. He watched his body climb out and move toward her.

She did not respond when he spoke her name. She waited until she felt his hand on her shoulder and then immediately she was up and holding onto his arm.

“I knew you would come,” she said in a voice that he wanted to describe as breathy. He couldn’t tell if she was genuinely out of breath or if it was simulated. “I was waiting for you and you came. You still love me after all.”

• • • •

I will take her where she wants to go, he told himself. I will drop her off. I will never see her again. But there was more to it. They weren’t on the road, not yet. No, she had to go back to the cult and get the rest of her things.

“They’re not a cult,” he said. “I looked them up.”

“Who would know better, me or you?” she asked. They would go back to the cult and they would get her things. It wasn’t far, she claimed, probably not more than a few minutes by car.

But it was more than a few minutes. It was, maybe twenty, and it felt much longer. She talked non-stop, about him, about them, their relationship, which she didn’t seem to realize was over and done. She was there beside him, leaning over the center console, stroking his arm. He kept flinching away, but she either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Now that she was in the car with him, she would have her way.

He felt worse than he had felt in years, worse, in fact, than when she had stabbed him. She was talking, talking. He just tried to ignore her. They would get a little house together, she was saying, unless, of course, he already had a little house, did he? Somewhere where they could be together, separate from the world and safe, living in exile from everybody else, just the two of them together, nobody but the two of them.

Oh God, no, he thought, though somewhere within him, his heart leapt like a stag.

They would have a baby, she went on, they owed it to the world to have a baby, but please God make it look like her rather than him. Sure, he had his good qualities, but after all, they could both agree that she was the one with the looks. She would stay at home with the baby and with the baby’s nanny and he would support them and watch the baby at night.

Yes, that small and more insistent part of him was beginning to assert. She has a good point. He shook his head, tried to stay himself.

Look at him now, she said. Who had chosen that shirt? Had he stolen it from a homeless man? Didn’t he know he needed someone to take care of him, to keep him from humiliating himself?

• • • •

And then, mercifully, they were there. He was out of the car and heading toward what he guessed to be the main building of the so-called cult, waving her back, no, he would get her things, no, they had kicked her out, she couldn’t come in, he would do it, it wasn’t any bother.

She was still calling something after him through the open driver’s side door of the car when he started knocking on the door. He tried not to hear what she was saying. The door opened and a thin woman with a windburned face revealed herself.

“Yes?” the woman said.

He introduced himself, awkwardly shook the woman’s hand. “I’m here to gather Star’s things,” he told her.

“Star?” said the woman. “You mean Tammy, right?”

“Didn’t you rename her Star?”

“Us? She started calling herself Star, all right,” said the woman. “We went along with it for a while. I mean, why not?” The woman craned her neck. “Is that her in the car?”

“That’s her,” he said.

The woman nodded. “Come on in,” he said. “I’ll close the door behind you.”

• • • •

He was led down a central hall and through some sort of dining area, containing five big tables and eight stacks of chairs. Past that, the hallway began again, doors punctuating it. The woman led him down near the back of the building and opened the door on the left.

“There you go,” the woman said. There were two black garbage bags balanced on a narrow cot. Each looked half full, the tops knotted closed.

“What’s in them?” he asked.

The woman shrugged. “Nothing much,” she said. “Worldly goods. So-called chattel. The millstone round the neck. Nothing anybody needs, least of all her.”

Puzzled, he just nodded, then moved forward to gather the sacks.

“She’s bad news. Still, we would have sent them to her,” the woman said from behind him. “We would have paid her bus ticket too. You didn’t have to come fetch her.”

“I didn’t want to,” he said.

She gave him a sharp look. “Then why did you?”

Why had he? It seemed so far away now, days in the past. But no, it had only been a few hours. Already he was back at the bottom of the trough and there was no getting out.

He sat heavily on the bed. He didn’t realize that he had until the woman was beside him, asking if he was okay.

“I just,” he said, “maybe just, a moment to catch my breath.”

The woman nodded. She watched him incuriously for a little bit and then went out.

IV.

How long can I stay here? he wondered, a garbage bag to either side of him. How much time had actually gone by? Ten minutes? Fifteen? When would she have had enough and come after him?

• • • •

Wouldn’t they stop her from coming after him at all? She was, after all, exiled, was not allowed to come back. The front door was closed and locked. Even if she wanted to, she wouldn’t be able to get in. Maybe he could claim sanctuary with the Children of Light. He could fall on his knees and beg them to save him from himself. As long as he was here, he would be safe.

• • • •

He took a deep breath. Yes, he would stay here. He wouldn’t move from this spot. Here he was safe. There was no reason for him to ever leave, no reason to ever see her again. Losing the car was a small price to pay. Losing his connection with the outside world a small price to pay, as long as he could stay himself, as long as he never had to see her again.

• • • •

Yes, he would stay, he told himself again.

• • • •

He took another deep breath and then, gathering the two bags, went outside to his own destruction.

Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson is the author of more than a dozen books of fiction, most recently the story collection A Collapse of Horses. His story collection Windeye and his novel Immobility were both finalists for a Shirley Jackson Award. His novel Last Days won the American Library Association-RUSA award for Best Horror Novel of 2009. His novel The Open Curtain was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an International Horror Guild Award. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship. His work has been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Japanese and Slovenian. He lives and works in Southern California, and teaches at CalArts.