Karrie Roman © 2018
All Rights Reserved
“Zach, stay there, honey.”
“It’s okay. Momma’s, okay.”
Momma said she was okay and Momma didn’t lie to him, but there was so much yelling and he was scared. How could she be okay with all that yelling? He wanted to scream, but Momma told him to stay real quiet. He wanted to go see what was happening, but Momma told him to stay in the stream and finish washing. It sounded like Momma needed help. But he was just a little boy and Father always told him he was no good at anything, so what could he do to help anyway?
But she was his momma and she was the only one who loved him.
That shouting was getting louder, but he couldn’t hear Momma yelling back now; she was crying and making a funny noise. He was going to go help; he didn’t care if Father said he was a useless little shit. She was his momma. He looked down so he’d put his hand on the right rock to hoist himself out of the water, but something was wrong. The clear water of the stream was all red—the brightest red he’d ever seen.
Zach wasn’t sure if the scream in his nightmare carried over into the real world—he hoped not. He sat quietly for a moment, listening. He couldn’t hear anyone coming toward his room. Sweat danced trails down his back and plastered his hair to his head. His body was working through the last of the tremors as his breathing slowly calmed back to normal.
This wasn’t the first time he’d had this nightmare, and it wouldn’t be the last. But it seemed worse this time, and Zach couldn’t quite work out why. Perhaps it was the turmoil of the last few days.
Three days ago, Zach had fled his father’s religious cult with two young girls, one a maybe fourteen-year-old who’d been about to be forced into marriage with his father. The three of them had almost literally crashed into two men, Ben and Ethan, who had been searching for Ethan’s infant nieces. The little girls had been kidnapped by their father and taken to the cult. It had all been such a mess, made even worse by his father’s plans for the mass suicide of the cult members.
But he was safe; the girls were safe; everyone was safe. Ben and Ethan and the FBI—they’d saved everybody.
Right now he was sleeping in the house of Ben’s brother, Cameron. Cameron had also helped in their eventual rescue. Just thinking about Cameron woke up the butterflies in his belly, causing them to flutter around like crazy.
When he’d first encountered Ben out there in the wild, he’d thought him beautiful—and then he’d seen him kissing Ethan. Raised as he had been, secluded from the world in his father’s cult, Zach had no idea men could be together in the same way the men had been with the women of the cult. He hadn’t known such a thing was possible. Suddenly, the way Zach had always watched the men of the cult with such fascination and yearning had made sense. He finally made sense.
But all of that was nothing compared to how his body had reacted when he had seen Cameron for the first time. Beautiful hadn’t seemed a good enough word to describe Cameron. Zach didn’t even know of a word that could define the perfection he saw in Cameron Cronin. All he could think was how he wanted to press his lips to Cameron’s just like he’d seen Ben do to Ethan.
For now, the remnants of the nightmare clung to him, refusing to leave him in peace, so he knew he’d never get back to sleep. In the past, there’d never been anyone to comfort him, no one for him to go to for a few whispered words or a gentle touch to ease him through the lingering terror, but tonight Cameron’s face flashed in his mind, so he pushed the covers back to go in search of him. Everyone had been kind to him since his escape, but there was something about Cameron, something he didn’t understand but knew it made him feel good—safe—anyway.
As soon as he left his room, he noticed lights toward the end of the long hallway and heard soft voices coming from the same direction. Zach walked quietly, unsure of his welcome.
Four men sat in the room at the end of the hall: Cameron, Ben, Ethan and the FBI agent who’d been in charge of the raid on his father’s cult, Alec Banner. They were talking, and none of them seemed to notice his arrival.
“Cameron,” he called softly. His voice was so quiet he wasn’t even sure if Cameron would hear him from across the room, but he must have because he jumped up from his seat, immediately striding forward.
Zach’s tummy churned in that good way as Cameron came toward him. Everything about him was so perfect. He was tall and broad, thick muscles cording his arms and legs. He was so handsome. His face looked hard, as if it had been chiseled from stone, all angles, but it was stunning to look at. He had a bit of stubble covering his jaw, and Zach yearned to scrub his fingers over it just to see if it scratched his skin like he thought it would. Cameron’s pale-blue eyes never wavered as he watched Zach with concern.
“You okay, Zach?”
“Only a nightmare,” he replied, nodding his head.
“Do you want to sit with us for a while?” Cameron asked and Zach looked over his shoulder at the other men, shifting his gaze to each of them.
“No, that’s okay. I just…needed to know you were here.” His words sounded pathetic to his own ear, but he saw only concern in Cameron’s gaze.
Cameron reached out an arm as though he was going to touch him and then just as quickly pulled it back. “I’m right here, Zach. I’m not going anywhere…you’re not alone anymore.”
Zach nodded, suddenly embarrassed a dream had chased him out here to these men like a frightened child. He nodded and turned to walk back to his room.
When he got there, he pulled his blankets onto the floor, hoping the familiar hardness of the ground would help him sleep. Comfort wasn’t something he was used to.
Cameron had told him he wasn’t going anywhere. He’d also offered for Zach to stay here with him until he got himself sorted out. The rest of the cult members were staying together. They’d set up a campsite just outside of town until the FBI had interviewed them all, but Zach didn’t want to go with them. He’d always been invisible to most members of the cult—an outcast even among outcasts.
Zach had accepted Cameron’s offer because he’d need help learning how to live in this strange new world he’d been dumped in. He’d lived on the periphery growing up, knowing there was another world there but not really understanding it. Hushed and whispered conversations of the decadence and sinfulness of the world had often reached his ears. Awed stories about televisions and phones and other such evil inventions of mankind had often enthralled him. Regardless of the threads of knowledge he had, though, he really knew so little of this world he’d suddenly been thrust into since his escape. And with his father arrested and the cult disbanded, there was no going back behind the closed walls of their commune. He’d have to find his way in this world, and he’d have to find it alone—or perhaps not as alone as he’d thought, if Cameron was truthful with him.
“Come on in, Zach. Cameron, you can wait out here if you like.” Alec Banner spoke with the kind of calm authority you’d expect from the FBI.
“Zach?” he asked because as far as he was concerned Zach was running this show and Cameron would follow his lead.
Zach looked at him, his eyes wide with nerves. “I’d rather you come in with me if you can.”
It was settled. Cameron would be going in whether Banner liked it or not if that’s what Zach wanted.
It had only been a week since the raid on Arnold Piper’s cult, and the FBI was finally getting around to interviewing Piper’s son, Zach. Cameron glanced at Alec, who gave a stiff nod and led them into the stark interview room. From the looks of the room, if Cameron didn’t know better, he’d think Zach was the criminal here. The space was cold and imposing, designed to unnerve those who entered.
“Take a seat. We’ll be taping the interview. Okay, Zach?”
Zach nodded and Alec got right to business, officially beginning the recording and asking his first of probably many questions.
“Zach, what is your relationship to Arnold Piper?”
“He’s my father.”
“And you’re the eldest child?”
“I think so, yes.”
“I’m not positive my father has any children older than me because he kept me out of his life, but I do have younger brothers and sisters.” Zach glanced at him nervously. Cameron knew Zach wasn’t shy, but he also didn’t enjoy talking about his father. Zach wore his shame, because of who his father was, like a badge of disgrace.
“And what is your understanding of your father’s position in the Star of Life Commune?”
“Um…he’s in charge. The leader. My father believes he is god’s representative on earth.”
“I see.” Alec looked at his notes and tapped the page with his pen. “Could you briefly tell me about the day-to-day life of the cult? Who did what, etcetera?”
Zach flicked another glance toward him, and Cameron could tell he was a little lost by the broad question. Where did you begin with something like that? Alec was astute enough to pick up on Zach’s confusion and rephrased his question.
“Start by telling me what your father’s job was. What did he do each day?”
“Father preached a lot. He’d get everyone together and talk about god every day for hours. He’d tell us what god expected from us, what we needed to do to please him. He’d talk about the world outside our camp. Father would tell us the worst parts of it; twist it so we were afraid to leave his camp. He’d talk for hours on the evils of the cinema and technology and such. I don’t even know if half the stuff he said was true. When he finished, we all had chores to do, but Father never worked. After he preached, he either went to meet with Mr. Watson and Mr. Lloyd and some of the other older men or he’d go off with one or more of his wives.”
“How many wives did your father have?”
“Was that common for the men to have more than one wife?”
“Yes. But no man was allowed more than Father. The number of wives showed his importance. And for the women, it was supposed to be a great honor to marry Father or one of the other higher-up men.”
Cameron shook his head at the arrogance of men like Arnold Piper. If he lived to be a thousand, he didn’t think he’d ever understand the desire some people had to hold such power over others.
“And can you tell me the ages of your father’s wives?”
“Not for sure. We don’t know our ages, don’t celebrate birthdays, but I’m sure his last wife couldn’t have been more than fifteen when he married her two years ago because I remember her as a baby.”
“What did the cult members call your father?”
“We all call him Father. Even his wives call him that.”
Cameron watched as Alec shifted uncomfortably on his seat, his gaze quickly ghosting over the deformed fingers of Zach’s left hand. Cameron suspected he wasn’t going to like the question that came next.
“What about you, Zach? As the eldest son of ‘Father,’ how many wives did you have?”
“None.” Zach’s response was fast and sharp like a whip crack.
“None? We know younger men than you from the camp already had at least one wife, so I find it hard to believe your father didn’t have you married off. As his eldest son, there must have been some prestige, some importance attached to it. Weren’t you being groomed to take over one day? Perhaps you married little girls as well and simply don’t want to confess. Don’t want to get in trouble for it.”
“Alec!” Cameron jumped to his feet as the name flew indignantly from between his lips. What the hell was this?
“Sit down, Cameron, or I’ll have you escorted out.”
“He’s not the one in trouble here,” Cameron retorted, leaning over Alec who remained seated, completely unimpressed with Cameron’s attempt at intimidation.
“And I have to ask these questions to make sure. So, please. Sit down.” Alec gestured to Cameron’s seat with his eyes, but Cameron remained standing and continued glaring at the FBI agent.
“Does he need a lawyer?” Cameron asked through gritted teeth.
“It’s his right.” Came Alec’s indifferent answer.
“It’s okay, Cameron,” Zach said as he pulled on Cameron’s fingers. It was his gentle tug that finally had Cameron’s ass back in his chair, though his anger remained potent; he wasn’t fond of Banner’s insinuations, and he sure as hell didn’t like the hurt in Zach’s eyes because of them.
“I had no wives because Father never believed I was good enough. I was a disgrace. He either pretended I didn’t exist or took out his anger on me, but I wasn’t important, and he’d never have let me have a bride.” Zach kept his head down as he spoke, waves of shame seemed to roll from him.
Cameron glanced at Alec as he took in Zach’s words, evaluating them for truth. He’d heard the vulnerability in Zach’s voice, the pain, and had known instantly he was being honest, and his anger at Arnold Piper for what he’d done grew like a living thing.
“All right, let’s move on,” Alec conceded. “How did the Star of Life Commune come to be living in tents in the Shoshone National Forest?”
“Until just a while ago, we were living on farmlands. I’m not sure where. Father never shared those details with me. There was a big farmhouse where Father and his wives and youngest children lived. Everyone else lived in cabins, and we had cows, chickens, horses and such. We grew our own food, did our chores, and went to Father’s sermons. We weren’t allowed television or anything too modern. We lived simply. I don’t know what happened, but one day Father told us we needed to leave, so we packed up what we could into the buses and just left. Father said we’d camp until god provided us with a new home. It’s happened a couple of other times I can remember.”
“So this wasn’t the first campsite since you left the farm?”
“No. We’d moved around a few times. Father said god was guiding him to our new home.”
“And no one argued with your father about leaving the farm or moving campsites?”
Cameron kept his gaze on Zach as he took his time, considering his answer. The emotions playing across his face were a mixture of disgust, amusement, and anger.
“Nobody argued with Father over anything. Father told you who to marry and when. He told you who and what was good and who and what was bad. Arguing with Father was the same as arguing with god.” Zach took a steadying breath and continued, “I remember this one man stood up to him once. Told Father he wasn’t gonna let him marry his sister because she was too young. My father beat that man bloody for going against god. Kicked him out of the commune. Nobody ever saw him again, and Father married his sister the next day.”
“What was her name?” Alec asked.
“Cathleen,” Zach replied. “She’s still married to Father, but she won’t help you. She said it was the greatest honor of her life marrying Father—even after she’d watched him beat her brother.”
Cameron’s fists clenched, his nails digging into his palms. Zach’s handsome face looked haunted, as though he’d never get over the fact that his father had been such a monster. Cameron itched to reach out and touch him, hold him, offer him some sort of support, tell him none of it was his fault—his shame. He dug his nails in farther.
It was dangerous for him to feel too much for anyone, let alone a man he was so drawn to. And he was drawn to Zach, not just physically—even though he was gorgeous—but something about Zach spoke to Cameron. His naiveté, his sweetness, or the way he looked at the world through almost childlike eyes? Or maybe it was his strength of character. Cameron couldn’t pin down what called to him, but something did.
“Ben Cronin and Ethan Stone have made a statement that a week ago they came across you, Sophia Jacob, and Mary Jacob in the bush, approximately ten miles from Hawk’s Rest. Can you explain why you were there?” Alec continued.
“Phia—Sophia—came to me because my father was going to marry her sister, Mary. She’s only around fourteen or fifteen, we think, and she was scared. I offered to help them get away.” Cameron noticed Zach shaking as he spoke, so he leaned over and gently squeezed his shoulder to remind him he was there, and he wasn’t alone.
“Was that the only reason you fled?” Alec asked.
Zach looked at him and gave a tiny smile. “No. Father had always let it be known he had what he called the Jonestown Protocol. It meant that on the say-so from god—so really on Father’s say-so—we were all to go to god.” Zach finished abruptly.
“What exactly does that mean—go to god?”
“The parents were to give the children a ‘special drink’ that would put them to sleep and send them to the lord, and Father had pills for the adults. Anyone who didn’t go through with it—well, Father had his soldiers who would take care of them with their guns.”
“I see.” Alec cleared his throat. “Go on.”
“I’d overheard Father telling Mr. Watson, on the same day Phia came to me, it was time for Jonestown on the Friday. I’d planned to get out, anyway, to try to bring back some help.”
Cameron didn’t hear too much more after that. His mind was stuck looping around in the terror Zach must have endured knowing his own father was going to order the deaths of every person Zach had ever known—including his own sons.
What felt like hours later, Alec finally asked his last question—at least for now. Zach would be answering questions about his father for the rest of his life.
“Interview concluded at three twenty-nine p.m.” Alec clicked off the recorder. “Thanks, Zach. You did well. I’m sorry if it got a little rough, but we have to make sure we get this guy.”
When the three men stood, Cameron offered Alec his hand. “Thanks, Alec. Sorry about before.”
“I understand, and believe me, I hate having to ask those things.”
“Can he expect another interview soon?”
“With Maggie’s testimony, and others from the cult, we’ve probably got enough for the indictment hearing, but once we get the indictment, the prosecutor will go through things far more thoroughly. We know where he’s staying if we need him, anyway.” Alec said.
“Good. Okay, we’ll see you later then.” Cameron wanted to get Zach out of there.
“Take care, Zach. See you, Cameron.”
Cameron put his hand on the small of Zach’s back and guided him out the door and down the hall. They reached the large room they’d been waiting in earlier, and Cameron recognized two young girls waiting in there. Phia and Mary were sitting with an older lady whose resemblance to them told Cameron she was probably their mother.
Zach moved quickly toward them and all three stood. Only Mary wore a smile. As Zach reached them, the older lady stepped forward and raised her arm, bringing her hand down, with a sharp crack, on Zach’s cheek. Cameron lurched forward and grabbed Zach’s shoulders as he flinched back.
“Don’t you speak to us, Zachary Piper. You are a disgrace to our lord and your father.” The woman spat.
“No, Mary. Our Father Piper has been shot and may be going to prison because of this—” she gesticulated with her hand toward Zach as though she couldn’t come up with a word bad enough to call him. “Many of our men are in jail because of him. You ruined everything, Zachary. Father should have gotten rid of you, too, when he—don’t come near us again. You are unwanted by any of us, Zachary.” The woman grabbed the girl’s hands and yanked them back down on their seats and deliberately turned her head away. The older one, Phia, looked at her feet, but Mary looked at Zach, her expression grim.
Cameron had heard more than enough. He understood being blinded to somebody’s faults, but the first steps to freedom involved facing the truth, and this woman needed to hear it.
“He saved your life, lady, these girls’ lives—all of your lives. He stopped a pedophile from getting his hands on your fourteen-year-old daughter. You should be on your damn knees thanking him,” Cameron hissed through gritted teeth. He didn’t think he’d ever wanted to throttle someone before, and he couldn’t say it was a pleasant feeling.
“It’s okay, Cameron. Let’s just go.” Zach’s voice was so soft as to be barely heard. Cameron followed him as he headed for the door, the hunch in his shoulders easily discernable and making it even harder for him to walk away from that woman without giving her more of his mind.
They reached his car without a word passing between them. Zach silently climbed in, his face turned toward the window.
“Zach, I’m so sorry. You didn’t deserve what she said.”
“I ruined their lives.”
“You saved their lives, and one day they’ll damn well understand that.” Cameron was so angry he thought he may actually snap the steering wheel, which he currently held in an iron grip.
“Thanks for being there for me.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Zach. I told you I’ll be here whenever you need me.”
Zach turned to him then and their gazes held. “I might need you a lot.”
“It won’t be a problem. I promise.” He winked.
Zach scrutinized him for a while before finally smiling, the tension in his shoulders easing. “Still gonna teach me how to drive this thing?”
“Soon as you get your permit,” he answered and revved the engine.