by Joe Zabel
'Now think,' said the female officer interviewing Kathy. 'Can you remember how you got those bruises?'
Exasperated, Kathy explained again. 'I got them when the man grabbed me. He was holding me very tightly, and he slammed my hand against the side of the refrigerator to knock the oven burner frame out of my hand. And his name is Walter, by the way.'
'Do you see 'Walter' often?' asked the officer.
'I met him one time before, in the parking lot of the place where I work,' said Kathy.
'Did anybody else see him that time?' asked the officer.
Kathy looked over her shoulder. 'Lieutenant Corruthers!' Kathy exclaimed, relieved.
'That'll be all for the moment, Iris,' said Corruthers. The officer nodded and walked away.
'Why don't the police believe me?' asked Kathy.
'It always helps if you tell the whole truth from the start-- otherwise you hurt your credibility. And cops take a sideways glance at a break-in where none of the locks have been forced, and where the witness begins making wild claims...'
'All right,' said Kathy. 'What do I have to substantiate in order to convince the police a crime's been committed?'
'It's not like that, Ms. Swanson. We've confirmed that a Sally Smith was recently hired as your executive assistant, and that she gave your address as her temporary residence. Do you have any witnesses to verify that Ms. Smith in fact believed herself to be Jen Marriott?'
'No,' said Kathy. 'We kept that a secret.'
'And what kind of proof do you have,' went on Corruthers, 'that she was involved with a cult?'
'She exhibited strange behavior-- she had a habit of reciting an unusual prayer. And when Walter, who is a known cult member, broke through the door, it all added up!'
'Hmm... did you yourself see Ms. Smith being taken by force?'
'She was being held... she was struggling! And she called to me for help,' said Kathy. 'After that I must've blacked out or something.'
'Ok. We'll make every effort to find Ms. Smith. But I'm sure you realize, it would've been a lot more helpful if you'd given us-- or a qualified psychiatrist-- a chance to interview her before she disappeared!'
Kathy nodded in agreement.
Margo's two daughters were both in their teens, and with the typical snobbery of teenagers, declined to acknowledge their temporary houseguest as a real person who merited attention. Kathy after all was an adult, and Tracy and Sue expected adults to take care of themselves.
But Kathy didn't mind being ignored by the girls. She simply sat back at the dinner table and watched Margo alternately flattering, interrogating, and threatening them in a concerned, nurturing tone.
When she'd finally driven them up to their rooms and their homework, she turned back to Kathy. 'Peace at last!' she remarked.
'Thanks for taking me in, Margo. Being around people really helps.'
'You know you can stay here as long as you like. I don't blame you for not wanting to go back to the apartment just now. I'm sure it would give you the creeps. And until you get the locks changed, it's just not safe.'
Kathy frowned. 'I'm so worried about Sally. This has something to do with Jen's death, and I'm scared that Sally will end up the same way! But as far as the police are concerned, it's just another missing persons case.'
Margo nodded. 'I don't think the cops really understand about cults. For that matter, I know next to nothing about them myself. But I happen to know a 'cult expert' we can talk to...'
'You can't blame the cops,' said Dr. Yang. 'When they' re dealing with these groups, they've got their work cut out for them. After all, the group members have constitutional rights, just like the rest of us.'
'But they don't have the right to kidnap somebody!' said Kathy. 'They don't have the right to take a human life!'
'Now calm down, Kathy,' counseled Yang. 'Dealing with these groups requires patience, diligence, and most of all EXTREME CAUTION. Now, have you tried to identify the specific group we're dealing with?'
'I haven't a clue, Alan,' said Kathy. 'I visited an office that gives out information about cults-- it's in a storefront downtown. But they seemed more interested in fund-raising than answering questions...'
'Was it the Cult Information Support Group?' asked Yang, sitting up.
'You should steer clear of that group!' said Yang. 'Last year they had a $4 million judgement against them in a lawsuit, and they had to file for bankruptcy. Their assets, including their name, was bought up luck, stock, and barrel by the Church of Neuro-mesmerism!'
'You mean that place is actually run by a CULT?'
'That's right! You didn't give them your address, I hope!'
Margo entered the living room, carrying a serving tray with coffee and snacks. 'What'd I tell you? Does Alan have the inside scoop or what?'
Kathy smiled at Yang. 'I really appreciate your coming over. How'd you pick up this background on religious cults?'
'My master thesis was on sleep deprivation as a persuasion technique. It's a method used in brainwashing and interrogation of prisoners of war. It's also a technique used in recruiting cult members. New recruits are lured into situations where they're subjected to late-night indoctrination sessions followed by exercises and group singing at the crack of dawn. Without sufficient REM sleep, the mind loses the ability to judge information properly. It's part of the stage called 'unfreezing,' where the recruit's grip on reality is loosened. That's followed by a stage where the recruit is indoctrinated into the cult beliefs, and then 'refreezing' to make them a permanent cult member.'
'Tell her how you started corresponding with Dr. Vaughn,' suggested Margo.
'Vaughn was developing a therapy program at the Griffin Health Clinic that was cult-related. It focused on children rescued from extremist cults. Many of these children have been systematically separated from their parents and denied the loving relationships normal children experience. In the worst cases, they're severely disciplined, and even sexually abused by the cult leadership. And of course, they're indoctrinated relentlessly in the cult's belief system.
'As they mature into young adults, they're like empty shells, with no personality and no will power. Dr. Vaughn was working to help them adjust to society. He was using a kind of dream therapy to help them bring to the surface their nascent personalities, their imagination. As a matter of fact, Vaughn's work was a big influence on me; when I heard he was heading VISR, I practically knocked down the door to get in.'
Yang turned sober. 'That's why it's so hard to believe Vaughn would fall under Hollister's influence. Has he lost his mind?'
Kathy snapped her fingers. 'That's something I forgot to tell anybody-- Sally recognized Hollister's picture! Is it possible he's tied up with this group, Alan?'
'It's possible. There could certainly be a confluence of interests.'
'I'm sure he wouldn't mind selling a few books to any army of zombies!' commented Margo.
'Right!' said Yang. 'Anyway, Kathy, we need to get you in touch with a legitimate cult awareness group. This is the weekend, but I'll try to track down somebody who can talk to you.'
'Thanks, Alan,' said Kathy.
Walter was using a razor now, and he shaved her head until she was completely bald. Then he toweled off the excess shaving cream. Sally lay unconscious on the surgery table, completely oblivious to this handling.
Dr. Hollister revved up the hand-held drill. It made a high-pitched whining sound, ZZZRRRIIIOO! ZZZRRRIIIIOOOO!!
Walter used a blue marker to draw circles with cross-hairs on each side of Sally's exposed scalp.
Hollister bent over Sally, and Walter rolled her head from side to side to show him the target marks.
Hollister nodded his head in approval, and revved up the drill again. ZZZZRRRIIIOOOO! ZZZZRRRRIIIIOOOOO!
Then he turned and looked out at the spectators.
In the operating theater window, a large crowd watched the procedure with interest and approval. Only one person showed any emotion. It was Kathy, staring aghast at the horrible prospect, glancing from side to side in terror that if she screamed, she would be the next on the table.
Kathy awoke with a start.
She quickly realized that she had been napping in Margo's living room chair. It was dark out, probably after midnight, but the television was still on, and Kathy could hear some stirring in the kitchen-- Margo doing the dishes she'd neglected in order to keep Kathy company.
Bleary-eyed, Kathy focused on the TV. It was some kind of infomercial, on the theme, 'A New Life, A New You!'
It featured a quick round of testimonials: 'I was depressed, lonely, directionless! New Leaf put me on the right track!' 'They helped me get off drugs-- I've been clean for eighteen months!' 'They gave me the confidence to start a new career!'
The scene switched to a studio, where two soap-opera stars were talking before a live studio audience. 'Point one,' said the man, 'You are the sum total of every bump, bruise, and setback you've ever experienced in your entire life. Point two: you've got your whole life ahead of you, but the only way you can live that life to the fullest is if you can put all those unhappy experiences behind you!'
The actress completed the thought. 'Point three: the New Life Personal Growth Seminars can show you the way!'
The audience applauded wildly.
Suddenly, Kathy glimpsed something that made her sit up in her chair and stare intensely at the screen.
The camera was panning the crowd, and a tall young man stood among the rest of them, smiling and clapping as much as his neighbors. It was the distinctive face of Walter.
In a moment it was gone, and the production went on the more testimonials. But Kathy was busy taking down the phone number. Then she called out, 'Margo! Margo, come here!'
As the bus pulled onto the freeway, the girl sitting next to Kathy said, 'You're really luck-- this was the last open seat on the bus! My name's Chrissie-- what's yours?'
'Rachel James,' said Kathy. She adjusted her glasses-- an attempt, like her assumed name, to disguise herself.
'So Rachel, how did you become interested in the New Leaf?' asked Chrissie. 'Where'd you hear about it?'
'I saw one of their late-night infomercials.'
Chrissie nodded enthusiastically. 'Those programs are really good! They show all the people the New Leaf has helped. So that show really hit you where you lived, huh? What about it appealed to you?'
'The way they talked about helping people change. I'm in kind of a rut, and I liked the idea of starting fresh. So have you been to one of these before, Chrissie? What are they like?'
'They're wonderful, beautiful experiences!' raved Chrissie.
'What exactly do they do at these things?' asked Kathy.
'I can't describe it, Rachel-- you'll see soon enough!'
At that moment a handsome blonde young man stood up in the aisle at the front of the bus. He had a microphone in hand. 'Folks,' he said, 'It won't be long now before we'll arrive; lets pass the time with a little SINGING! ...JEREMIAH WAS A BULLFROG!...'
Chrissie and the others joined in, '...WAS A GOOD FRIEND OF MINE!' Kathy looked around her, and began singing along with the others.
Singing could be heard from within the bus as it pulled up to a large compound constructed in the middle of open country. As the bus slowed to a halt, the doors of the compound burst open and a group of young people came racing out. They were clapping their hands and laughing. As each passenger departed from the van, two of the welcoming committee would flank him and lock arms, then whisk the newcomer off into the compound. When Kathy's turn came, she gasped with fright as two girls grasped her arms and carried her scrambling towards the compound door.
As she staggered inside, she realized at once that she was surrounded by applauding, laughing people, all with their attention momentarily focused on her. Then she pulled off to the side, and saw Chrissie being hurtled into the midst of the crowd, to receive in turn her share of applause and approval.
Chrissie gave Kathy a hug and said, 'Don't you love it already?'
The young man from the bus was still brandishing his microphone. 'Now that we're all here, let's start by breaking up into groups of four for a New Leaf warmup!'
'I was with Susan,' complained a young woman as two other girls pushed her towards one corner of the room. 'Come on!' replied one of the girls, 'You're here to make NEW friends! Suzie will be fine!'
An enthusiastic young man was the ringleader of Kathy's group. 'This is the 'drop it' game. We each take turns saying something we don't EVER want to do AGAIN! I'll start: I never ever again want to wear long underwear out of the washing machine that hasn't been put in the dryer! Whaddya say, group?'
Chrissie and the other girl chimed in, 'DROP IT!' Kathy got the idea.
Chrissie was next. 'I never ever again want to date a boy who breaks up with me after the third date!' 'DROP IT!' shouted Kathy along with the others.
The game proceeded at a brisk pace, amidst shouts of 'DROP IT!' all around them from the other groups. 'Never ever again... never ever again...' began echoing in Kathy's mind as she struggled to keep up.
'I never ever again want to sleep with somebody else's husband,' said Kathy. She was echoing a fiction she'd included in her written application for the seminar.
'DROP IT!!' chimed in the rest of the group.
'The clothes make the man!' said the speaker on the stage. He had a display board with a cartoonish representation of a man printed on it, standing in his socks and polka-dotted underwear. The speaker stuck onto the cartoon-man some flat representations of a policeman's cap and uniform.
'Yes officer,' said the speaker to the cartoon man, 'What was that? Sixty miles an hour in a school zone? Oh, golly, don't give me a ticket!'
'The clothes make the man,' he repeated, changing the cartoon man's clothing to make him a doctor with a stethoscope. 'Doctor, please, do I HAVE to have my tonsils out?' he begged the cartoon figure.
'The clothes make the man!' he repeated.
The speaker continued, addressing the audience as if they were pre-schoolers. Kathy found the effect unsettling. She leaned over and whispered to Chrissie, 'What the heck is this all about?'
'It's really deeper than it seems,' explained Chrissie. 'If you listen closely with an open mind, the answers are all there!'
After dressing the cartoon man as a milkman, a fireman, a lawyer, a welder, a soldier, a sailor, a circus clown, a chef, a coal miner, an weightlifter, and a football player, and declaring 'The clothes make the man' for each outfit, the lecturer turned to the audience. 'Now I'd like some volunteers-- do we have any brave souls out there? How about YOU?' He pointed to a lanky young man.
The recruited volunteer stepped up onto the stage. 'Your name, please,' said the speaker, holding out a microphone for him. 'Charles Salter,' the young man said.
'Ok, Charles, we're going to show just how much the clothes make the man. Now everybody, what do you think? How about Charles' shirt?' He indicated charles green striped shirt. The audience murmured, and there was scattered clapping. The speaker waved his arms, prompting for more reaction. The audience as a whole applauded.
'Now how about his... PANTS?' The speaker's tone and expression were mockingly disapproving of Charles' blue jeans. Once again there was scattered applause, but this time he stared down the clappers in disbelief. A few members of the audience groaned. The speaker mugged an exaggerated frown, and there was a wave of moaning that passed over the crowd.
'Chuck,' said the speaker, turning to him and laughing, 'I bet you thought this was a 'dress casual' event!' Charles laughed nervously. 'Now how about Charles' SHOES? Show them your shoes, Charles.'
Charles lifted his left and then his right leg, so the audience could see the hold tennis shoes he was wearing. The speaker turned to the audience, mugging an appalled expression. The audience took the cue and began moaning in unison, 'Uuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhh!!' The speaker took one side of the room and then the other, playing them off against each other in who could moan the loudest. 'UUUUUHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!'
The speaker giggled and put his arm around Charles. 'Ok, folks, what do you think of Charles himself? Isn't he a good sport?'
The audience broke into unreserved cheering and applauding, a deafening roar that filled Charles face with delight.
'The clothes make the man!' declared the speaker.
It was not long before Kathy was coaxed onstage. She got the same once-over, the audience approving or disapproving of each article of clothing.
'Those are nice boots!' said the speaker, his sentiments echoed by applause from every corner of the room.
'Now listen up, people: what do you think of Rachel's SPECTACLES?'
The speaker mugged a frown, and the audience responded on cue, 'UUUUUGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!'
Kathy felt a wave of humiliation wash over her, even though the audience was only play-acting.
'Why don't you take those horrible things off, dear, and let us see your face?'
Kathy reluctantly removed her glasses. The crowd began to clap, and the speaker wheeled his arms to rev up a big roaring applause. Kathy found herself blushing from all the attention.
'You know what?' said the speaker, 'You don't really NEED those glasses!'
'No,' said Kathy, 'I really do.'
'Believe me, you don't. You're more powerful than you think! And if those lenses were really working for you, you probably wouldn't even be here! You've got to have the courage to change-- that's what the New Leaf is all about! Thanks, Rachel!'
Chrissie hugged Kathy when she'd left the stage. 'You were terrific! Are you going to do it? Are you going to give up those glasses?'
'I can't,' said Kathy.
'Aww! Come on! I'll hold them for you!' She reached up to take the glasses, but Kathy pushed her hand away.
'I'm sorry, but I need them!'
'The clothes make the man!' repeated the speaker from the stage.
The cafeteria adjoined a gymnasium where a dozen players seemed to be engaged in dribbling practice. The thump of the basketballs created a deafening roar that made conversation-- or thinking-- almost impossible.
Kathy and the others in her group took their seats. 'We've still got a lot to cover today,' said the ringleader, 'so let's eat fast.'
A kitchen worker handed him a dish heaped with steaming rice. 'Ok, gang, turn over your bowls.'
He spooned a small mound of rice into each. 'This is New Leaf Pilaf-- watch yourself, it's spicy!'
Kathy took a forkful, and immediately her mouth was on fire. As she gulped water, she noticed that they others were 'saying grace' with the same hand gestures she'd seen Sally practice. 'We are as one,' she heard them murmur, 'I protect you. You protect me. And we don't listen to any false speech.'
She studied the layout of the cafeteria, as she had every room she'd seen in the compound. But her eyes suddenly widened when she saw a young man approaching the cafeteria line.
It was Walter.
Kathy bowed her head down and spooned up another clump of rice. She wanted as little of her face as possible to be visible if Walter's eyes should turn her way.
'What?' she asked, when Chrissie made a comment to her. 'It's really HOT, isn't it?' said Chrissie, raising her voice.
'Yes,' said Kathy. 'Oh... you must mean the rice!'
'You'll get used to it!' nodded chrissie.
Kathy glanced over in time to see Walter walking off with a lunch container. She noted the direction he was heading.
Kathy stood up. 'Excuse me,' she said.
'Where are you going?' shouted the ringleader over the racket of the thumping basketballs.
'I've gotta, you know...' said Kathy. 'come on,' said Chrissie, 'you'll never find it-- let's go together.'
All the way to the ladies room and back, Chrissie went on and on about the seminar. 'I'm just having the greatest time! It really charges me up!'
'What've they got up there?' asked Kathy, turning to bound up a set of stairs. At the top she found a door, and had just opened it when Chrissie caught up with her. Chrissie pulled at her wrist. 'We're not supposed to wander the compound-- it's strictly against the rules!'
'But what harm can it do?' asked Kathy.
'Come on! We've got to get back for the next session! You don't want to miss it, do you?' Pleading, Chrissie tugged Kathy down the stairs.
In Kathy's group, the ringleader explained, 'The exercise we're going to do now is called the Honesty Game, which you've probably heard of before; but the way we play it is to emphasize CHANGE.
'I'll start with something somebody told me. They said, Larry, you should stop shaking your head when you talk-- it always looks like you're saying 'No, no, no, no, no!' Kathy and the others laughed as Larry imitated his former self, shaking his head as he talked.
Chrissie's turn was next. 'Rachel,' she said, turning to Kathy. 'I've only known you a short time, but I think you're really nice, and I really like being around you.' Kathy smiled.
'But I gotta be honest with you,' said Chrissie, 'those glasses really mess up your appearance!'
'I can't wear contacts,' Kathy improvised. 'They hurt my eyes.'
'But you don't need them,' said Chrissie. 'And maybe, if you improved your appearance, youwouldn't have to go out with married men! I'm sorry, that's just how I feel!'
Kathy hung her head. She thought, 'I guess if I really was going out with married men, that would be a crushing blow!'
When it was her turn, she said, 'I'm directing this statement towards all of you, because I think it applies equally. I think you should question more, be more skeptical. You all said how wonderful the morning speaker was, but it seems to me that what he was saying was really stupid and pointless. You shouldn't accept something just because everybody else does!'
Larry leaned back his head. 'Ha! Ha! Ha! Rachel, doesn't that tell you something? If we're all getting it, and you're still struggling, doesn't that mean you should open up your mind and your heart?'
Chrissie took Kathy's hand. 'Rachel, we love you, honey! Can't you try just a little bit harder, for us? It's so important! If you can't make that courageous first step, you're gonna regret it for the rest of your life!'
'We're halfway through the day, people,' said the new speaker, a tall, lantern-jawed young man. 'Let's give ourselves a big cheer for our hard work and determination! YAMALOO-- YAMALOO! SIS BOOM-BAH!'
The audience repeated, 'YAMALOO! YAMALOO! SIS-BOOM-BAH!'
'COGITATOR! COGITATOR! RAW RAW RAW!'
The crowd repeated, 'COGITATOR, COGITATOR, RAW RAW RAW!'
'PARENTS!' shouted the speaker, after the crowd had settled down. 'I want to lay it on the line about parents! I don't want to shock you, but this is the god's honest truth: PARENTS ARE HUMAN BEINGS!'
The speaker paced the stage. 'I don't want to be politically incorrect, but we've got to frankly recognize that by the time you reach our ages, all a parent is able to do is HOLD YOU BACK IN THE PAST.'
He shook his head. 'I know that's cruel, folks, but it's a cruel world. And the cruelest fact of all is that most parents out there aren't like Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet...'
'My father... raped me... when I was nine years old.' The plump, thirtyish woman on the stage spoke with the voice of a nine years old. 'Afterward, he said he was sorry and he'd never do it again. But after that, I could never look at him without thinking about it...'
The session leader stood by protectively, his face filled with concern. 'It took a lot of courage for you to tell us about this, Carla,' he said. 'Thank you.' She looked up sadly at him, then out at the crowd, basking in the attention.
'My mother was on drugs, and she turned me into a drug addict,' said Chrissie. She glanced at Kathy and gave her a tearful smile. 'I tried to straighten myself out-- but there was no way I could until I got away from there!'
'My father died when I was very little,' said Kathy. 'But my mother did a good job of raising me, and I loved her very much.'
The audience stirred uneasily. 'Rachel,' coaxed the session leader, 'did your mother spend all those years, while you were growing up, alone?'
'No, uh, she saw other men.'
'Were any of them MARRIED men?' asked the speaker, gently.
'I never knew what their background was,' improvised Kathy. 'That's what I found so frightening about them.'
The audience murmured approval.
Unexpectedly, Kathy turned and exited to the back of the stage. Chrissie, waiting to intercept her at the front, hissed, 'Rachel! Where are you going?'
Kathy hurried past other participants gathered around the stage. She overheard one girl saying, 'Can't I skip this? It gives me the creeps!' And her friend was saying to her, 'But this is really important!'
Kathy had just reached the exit when Chrissie caught up. 'Where are you rushing off to, young lady?' she said jokingly.
'I'm sorry-- that rice didn't agree with me,' Kathy invented.
'We're not supposed to leave now! Rachel, you've got to hear this!'
'I'll hurry back,' said Kathy, tugging on her arm, which Chrissie was holding firmly.
'Ok, I'll come with you-- but you realize you're making me miss everything too!'
As they hurried down the narrow corridor, Kathy glanced from left to right looking for something-- a weapon, rope, something! But the hallway was bare and featureless.
They entered the ladies room. Kathy scanned it-- nothing she could use-- paper towels? No...
She opened the door to one of the stalls, stepped in, then turned around. 'EEWW! Chrissie, look!'
Chrissie stepped into the stall to investigate.
Kathy gave her a hard push into the stall and slammed the door on her. Then she dashed out of the room.
As she turned to climb the stairs, Chrissie had already caught up to her. 'RACHEL!!'
Kathy swung around and punched Chrissie in the jaw. The other girl dropped to the floor in front of the steps.
Kathy turned her over and saw that she was ok-- just knocked cold. She heard footsteps, and quickly took the glasses from her face and put them on Chrissie.
'What happened?' said a man who ran up the hall to investigate.
'It's Rachel! said Kathy. 'She was trying to go upstairs-- I tried to stop her, and she fell!'
'Don't move her! said the man. 'I'll go get my group leader!' He hurried off.
Kathy climbed the steps three at a time, and carefully slid through the door.