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by Ray Garton
Description: People from across the country and around the globe are coming to the mountain retreat of Hester Thorne, the enthralling leader of the Universal Enlightened Alliance. They are coming to hear the comforting wisdom and messages of peace offered by Orrin, the centuries-old entity that Hester channels. They are coming to donate their money and time to Hester, the Alliance and Orrin. And some are chosen to make a more significant contribution...a greater sacrifice. Jordan Cross is looking for a reporter who disappeared while investigating the truth behind the Alliance....Lauren Schroeder is trying to find her husband, who joined the Alliance and kidnapped their son....Together, they will go behind the Universal Enlightened Alliance's false front of crystals and meditation and life-affirming positivity to discover the terrifying truth of an ancient cult bent on tearing down the wall between this world and one of unspeakable evil. The process has begun and the final dark rites are underway. It may already be too late...
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1992
eBookwise Release Date: May 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [711 KB]
Reading time: 460-645 min.
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On the day Lizzie Dayton got a glimpse of hell, the playground of Prairie Grammar School was dark beneath the shadow of rain-threatening clouds.
Before releasing her students for recess, Miss Randall, the fourth-grade teacher, looked out the large rectangular window that gave a clear view of the playground. Drumming her fingernails on her desktop, she said, "It looks pretty cloudy, but the weatherman says it won't rain. If it does, though, I want all of you to hurry back inside. At the first drop, understand?"
The class replied with a chorus of nods and uh-huhs.
"And be sure to wear your coats," she added. As the children hurried toward the door and forty minutes of playful freedom, Miss Randall said, "Lizzie, could I see you a moment?"
Lizzie was still seated at her desk, as usual. She always waited for the rush to end before getting up to leave. She stood and approached her teacher's desk, wondering if she'd unknowingly done something wrong.
As if reading Lizzie's thoughts, Miss Randall smiled reassuringly and stood, coming around to the front of her desk. She folded her arms and crossed her thin ankles and said, "How would you like to do a favor for me, Lizzie?"
Smiling up at her teacher, Lizzie said, "Sure, Miss Randall."
"Have you noticed that Hester is limping today?"
Her smile fading, Lizzie nodded.
"Well, she hurt her ankle over the weekend and she can't do any running or jumping for a few days. I've noticed you don't play in many of the games during recess and I thought you'd like to keep Hester company.''
Lizzie was no longer smiling. She had a sinking feeling inside all of a sudden, as if her stomach were oozing down into her legs.
"Do ... do I have to?" she asked quietly.
"Well, you don't have to. But I think it would be a nice thing to do."
Lizzie looked down at her shoes.
"In fact," Miss Randall said, leaning forward, "you two might even become good friends."
That almost made Lizzie laugh; instead, she nodded, said, "Okay," and got her coat.
Lizzie Dayton hated recess; the playground was littered with bad memories, and it seemed every time she went out there, another was made. She preferred the classroom, where, safely seated at her desk, she could quietly and confidently do the things she did best: solve math problems, spell words, write book reports or answer quiz questions.
She was a smart girl--the school had suggested she skip the fourth grade that year, but her mother would not hear of it--but for all of her spelling and writing and mathematical abilities, for all of her "book sense," as Mom called it, she was unable to fathom the politics of recess.
If she refused an invitation to join in a game of kick ball or dodge ball, the other children branded her a "chicken"; they laughed at and ridiculed her for not participating. If she played, however, she was ridiculed for her inabilities and inexperience.
Lizzie was a chubby girl, round-faced and pink-skinned, and lacked the speed and coordination required to be any good at the games the other children played. Her size not only made sports difficult; Lizzie's entire life seemed a chore simply because of the way she looked. She did not understand how a person such as herself--a girl who had never hurt anyone and who was so willing to share her belongings and talents--could be the target of so much cruelty.
Grown-ups seemed to see in Lizzie something special.
"A gifted child," they'd say.
"Such a bright girl."
"She has so much potential."
Praise from adults made her swell with pride and think that perhaps someday, when she was a grown-up, she would be accepted and appreciated. But that day was a long way off. In the meantime, grown-ups made lousy playmates.
Lizzie had learned that if she were to avoid the tormenting laughter, the name-calling, and the pointing fingers of her classmates, she had to avoid her classmates altogether.
She especially had to steer clear of Hester Thorne, the most hateful of the lot.
Hester was probably the most popular girl at school. She had the admiration of students and teachers alike. Her shiny blond hair and big blue eyes were magnets that pulled in the attention of everyone around her. Hester was always smiling, always seemed in a cheerful mood, and was never seen without a small entourage of friends.
Lizzie was not, however, among her admirers. In fact, there were times when Lizzie was overcome with a burning hatred for Hester that was strong enough to bring tears to her eyes. It also brought a pang of guilt and the echo of her mother's voice saying, Hating our enemies just lowers us to their level, sweety; we mustn't hate them. Remember the Golden Rule that Jesus gave us: "Do unto others ..."
Usually, Lizzie had no problem living by that rule. When others made fun of her or excluded her at school, they sometimes angered her and always hurt her, but she never lashed out at them. Only Hester Thorne could stir in her such trembling hatred. Sometimes that hatred was so fierce it made Lizzie want to kick or hit her, claw at her eyes, do something that would cause Hester enough pain to take that smile from her lips. Maybe it was the smile that did it. . . .
Hester's smile never went away. Even when she was angry or being cruel--and she'd been cruel to Lizzie more times than Lizzie cared to count--the smile remained as if it were a permanent feature of her face. The smile brought a glimmer to her eyes, as if she enjoyed every single thing she did.
But everything Hester did was not good. ...
Hester had quietly tormented Barry Walker, who was slightly cross-eyed. It was barely noticeable, really; in fact, Lizzie thought Barry's eyes were nice, crossed or not. He wasn't at Prairie anymore; he'd left the second week of school. While he was there, not a day had gone by that Hester did not, at least once, say something to him during recess or after school, only loud enough for her friends to hear. Lizzie never heard what Hester said to him, but she knew by the laughter that always followed that it was something awful. Barry had complained to Miss Randall, but it was useless; Hester and her friends always denied it and Miss Randall always believed Hester. Miss Randall was really a very nice lady and Lizzie liked her very much in spite of her allegiance to Hester. It had nothing to do with her character; everyone believed Hester. Everyone but Lizzie.
One day, Lizzie approached Barry after Hester and her friends had walked away in a chorus of derisive laughter. She smiled and tried to sound cheerful as she said, "Try not to pay too much attention to them. They're nobody. Really."
But Barry did not return to Prairie after that day and Lizzie had not seen him since.
At the beginning of the year, Miss Randall had brought a pair of hamsters into the classroom for the students to observe. She'd put Hester in charge of the animals, making her the only student with permission to feed and handle them. When Miss Randall was around, Hester always seemed to take great care in changing the hamsters' food and water and cleaning the cage. But when the teacher was out of the room or busy in her office, Lizzie sometimes saw Hester pinch her thumb and forefinger over the nose and mouth of one of the hamsters until its little body began to wriggle and thrash desperately, all of which got a burst of stifled laughter from Hester's friends.
There were other things, too, small things that seemed insignificant when considered individually but, when added up, were very unsettling.
Like the stray cat that used to hang around the playground waiting for scraps from the children's lunch bags. Lizzie found the cat one day on her way to catch the bus after school; someone had used a firecracker to blow the cat's backside into a glistening black-red mess. Normally, Lizzie would have thought even Hester incapable of such a thing. But the day before, she'd seen Hester huddling in a corner of the playground with her friends, passing around a small bright red object and laughing with corrupt delight. ...
What mystified Lizzie was everyone's apparent blindness to Hester's cruel nature. It was obvious enough to Lizzie, but no one else seemed to notice. Even those students not given the honor of joining Hester's entourage treated her as if she were a misplaced princess accidentally enrolled in a small-town grammar school. Every teacher in the school knew Hester by name and gave her a smiling "Hello" when they passed her on campus--even the principal, Mr. Drummond, who never remembered anyone's name.
Although adults saw great potential in Lizzie, they seemed not to see her at all when Hester was near by. No one did.
Hester captured and held the attention of everyone.
Except Lizzie. That was why Lizzie dreaded this particular recess more than she had any other.
When she stepped outside, a game of kick ball was already well under way.
Three girls were taking turns skipping rope on the sidewalk. When they saw her, they giggled and one of the girls began to chant as she skipped: "Liz-zie Day-ton gained a ton, eat-ing can-dy just for fun, al-ways hun-gry, nev-er full, she's got-ta bot-tom like a bull!!"
Lizzie turned away from them and tried to shut the sing-song voice from her ears.
Two boys were playing catch with a softball on the other side of the playground and directly across from the sidewalk where Lizzie stood, Hester Thorne sat in one of the swings, lolling back and forth in the seat. Her honey-colored curls were jostled by the cool breeze and she kicked at the gravel beneath her with the toe of one shoe.
Hester smiled across the playground at Lizzie, but it was not a smile of welcome; it was a challenge.
Rather than crossing the playground and drawing attention to herself, Lizzie walked around it, first along the sidewalk that ran near a row of classrooms, then along the tall chain-link fence that separated the playground from the school's ballfield. As she walked, Hester's smiling gaze followed her every step. The piercing squeak of the swing's chains grew louder as the distance between the two girls closed.
I'm not doing this for Hester, Lizzie thought firmly. I'm doing it for Miss Randall.
Lizzie stepped off the pavement and into the large rectangular graveled area that held the slide, monkey bars, teeter-totter, merry-go-round and swing set. She seated herself on the empty swing beside Hester and tried to smile as she met her eyes, tried to think of a pleasant greeting, something friendly. She could do neither. Instead, Lizzie turned her gaze to Hester's left foot, which was wrapped in an Ace bandage.
"How did you hurt your foot?" she asked.
"Fell off the back of my daddy's new pick-up truck," Hester replied through her smile.
Lizzie blinked with surprise. "Was it moving?"
"Of course not, dummy. I'd probably be dead if it was moving."
Still staring at Hester's foot, Lizzie said, "It must've hurt."
"Not really. I only sprained it a little."
"Oh. That's good."
"Good?" Hester snapped.
Startled, Lizzie looked at the girl and saw anger in her smiling eyes.
"You think it's good that I hurt my foot?"
"Oh, no, I just meant that--"
"How would you like it if you got hurt and I was glad?"
You always are, Lizzie thought, suddenly wanting to burrow into the gravel beneath her and disappear.
"I didn't mean that," Lizzie insisted, closing her eyes so she didn't have to look at that smile. "I only meant it's good that your foot was just sprained a little, that it wasn't hurt worse."
"I'm sure that's what you meant, Lizzie Dayton."
"Well, it is." Her eyes were still closed.
"What do you want, anyway? You don't like me. Why did you come over here?"
Lizzie's eyes opened then and she stared at Hester in disbelief, momentarily forgetting her intimidation.
"I don't like you? But you're the one who's always making fun of me, saying I'm fat. I've never done anything to--"
"But you are fat."
Lizzie stared at her lap, feeling the familiar pain again, the pain that would slowly grow into self-hatred. She whispered, "See what I mean?"
"You think that I don't like you because I say you're fat?" Hester laughed a moment--a laugh that came from the pain of others--then said, "That's just stupid. You are fat! I'm just telling the truth when I say that, I didn't make you fat." She laughed again and began swinging back and forth, her small hands wrapped tightly around the squeaky chains.
The chanting voice of the girl jumping rope across the playground drifted around on the breeze. "... she's got-ta bot-tom like a bull!"
"See?'' Hester giggled. '' Don't get mad at me because you 're fat."
Lizzie remained still in her swing, gulping back the tears she felt stinging their way to her eyes. She wanted to get up and leave but knew that, if she moved, she would reveal too much; she would cry or run away and Hester would know how much she'd hurt her.
Lizzie didn't want that, so she stayed put.
"So how come you came over here, Lizzie Dayton?"
She still said nothing.
"Huh? How come?"
Lizzie wondered if she should tell the truth or say that it was her idea. If she took the credit, Hester might feel a bit guilty for returning a kindness with cruelty.
Then again ...
"I thought you might like some company," Lizzie said. "That's all."
"Oh? That's all, huh?"
Before Hester spoke again, she let out a little shriek of pain and stopped swinging.
"What's wrong?" Lizzie gasped, turning to her.
Hester was leaning forward, wincing as she massaged her injured foot.
"Kicked my foot. I can't use my foot to swing," she said impatiently. Hester sat up, faced Lizzie, and said, "Come here and push me."
It was at that moment that Lizzie realized exactly what was so unsettling about Hester Thorne.
She had the eyes of an adult. She spoke with the authority of someone accustomed to being obeyed. She did not make requests or ask for favors; she gave orders.
Lizzie slowly moved from her swing, got behind Hester and gave her a gentle push.
"So you thought I'd like some company, huh?" Hester said.
"Are you sure it wasn't just because you wanted some company? You always spend recess alone and you never play. Because you're too fat." She giggled.
Lizzie felt her nostrils flaring.
"Or maybe you just think you're too good to play with the rest of us. If that's what you think, you're the only one who thinks it."
Go away, Lizzie told herself, just go back to the classroom and read a book. Before you start to feel too bad.
She could feel the beginning of a hard lump in her stomach and it grew as Hester went on.
"Is that why you came over, Lizzie Dayton? Because you wanted company?"
"No. I told you." She hated the way Hester called her by her full name.
"No, that's probably not it," Hester continued, her voice growing and fading as she swung back and forth, back and forth. "Maybe . . . maybe you did it for Miss Randall. Yes, that's probably it, because you know Miss Randall likes me so much. Much better than she likes you."
The hatred was coming back, and with it came tears, drowning the hollow whisper of her mother's reminders to be kind even to her enemies. Lizzie pushed harder, sending Hester higher into the air.
"She probably told you to come talk to me because I can't play, but you did it to make her like you. Not because you wanted to. Right?"
Lizzie gave another push, harder still.
"You know how much Miss Randall likes me, don't you, Lizzie Dayton? Everybody likes me. But I can't think of a single person who likes you."
The chains squealed like angry rats.
"Think about it. You're out here alone every day at recess. Miss Randall has never asked me or anybody else to keep you company. Has she?"
Hester laughed as she swung upward, her legs outstretched before her as she swung even higher than before, arms hugging the chains. When she spoke again, her voice was firm and even a little frightened.
"Hey, don't push so hard!" she snapped.
Lizzie knew she should stop; the anger in Hester's voice almost frightened her into stopping. It was the fear in her voice that made Lizzie want to push harder. Making Hester angry took no effort at all; it happened every day without provocation. But to make Hester Thorne afraid was something else altogether. Something like victory . . .
As Hester swung backward, Lizzie stepped back, raised her arms, pressed her palms flat against Hester's back, and shoved so hard she grunted with exertion.
"I'm getting dizzy!" Hester cried with a small tremble in her voice. "Stop!"
Lizzie felt her own lips, salty with tears, curl into a smile that she knew she should be ashamed of--mustn't hate them--but she could not fight it. When Hester swung back--
-- I'll tell!"--
--Lizzie readied herself--
-- "I swear I'll tell!"--
-- and pushed.
"Noooo!" Hester shouted, but the shout quickly became a whimper as she rose up higher and higher, stopping at a height almost level with the top of the swing. On her way back down, Hester babbled, "You're gonna get into so much trouble for this, Lizzie Dayton--"
Lizzie took a deep breath--
"--so much trouble!"--
--gave another powerful shove--
--and Hester was airborne.
She flew from the swing and, as if in a slow-motion dream, floated silently through the chilly air, her limbs splayed helplessly in four directions. She seemed to take forever to land and during that long instant, Lizzie's mouth dropped open and she sucked in a gasp of air and noticed, oddly, that the dark clouds overhead were moving along at a normal pace and everyone on the playground was playing and shouting as they were just an instant before. Only this--this one particular event in this corner of the playground--had slowed to a sort of underwater ballet in Lizzie's eyes and she knew why. . . .
Lizzie knew that when Hester Thorne hit the ground, Lizzie was going to be in so . . . much . . . trouble. . . .
Hester landed with a thud, a whoosh of knocked-out breath, and a scattering of pebbles.
The empty swing bobbed and swayed in Hester's wake, the chains chattering like gossiping metal teeth. Distant thunder stomped through the clouds. Lizzie waited for Hester to cry, to scream for Miss Randall. To do something.
But she lay still as sleep on the ground.
"Hen . . . Hester?" Lizzie breathed, moving slowly around the swing. "I'm . . . I'm sorry, Hester." She stopped two feet away from the girl and looked around, expecting to see teachers and students rushing across the playground toward her, hurrying to see what had happened to Hester . . .
... to see what the fat girl had done to their little Hester.
No one was coming; no one had noticed.
"Hester?" she whispered again, stepping forward and bending over her. "Hester, I didn't mean--"
Hester's body suddenly erupted in a fit of convulsions. Her arms and legs began to flop like fish on land; her back stiffened and her pelvis jutted upward again and again. With eyes bulging and her mouth a yawning O, Hester began to gag. Her head tilted back and foamy saliva began to gather at the corners of her mouth.
"Hester!" Lizzie cried, kneeling down and reaching for her but afraid to touch her. "Oh no, Hester, stop!" Glancing over her shoulder, Lizzie realized that they were still unnoticed by the others on the playground. She feared the trouble she knew would come if she called for Miss Randall, but she feared even more that Hester was dying. She filled her lungs with air to cry for help, but Hester's convulsions suddenly stopped.
Lizzie's voice caught in her throat; she was certain Hester was dead, that her last push had somehow killed Hester, that--
Hester rose up.
She did not sit up. She did not pull herself up. It was as if an invisible arm had lifted the top half of Hester's body into a sitting position, bringing her face less than an inch from Lizzie's.
Lizzie suddenly felt helplessly off balance and found herself groping fearfully for something to hold onto, as if she were teetering on the very edge of a pit, as if . . .
... as if she might fall into Hester's no longer smiling eyes.
Hester slapped her hands to each side of Lizzie's skull and held it in an iron grip as the playground seemed to fade around them and Lizzie tried to scream but could not find her voice and--
--when she looked over Hester's shoulder, she could not find the playground.
The moment Hester's hands began to squeeze Lizzie's head, the playground and school buildings melted away like boiling wax and they were suddenly someplace else, someplace dark and cold in spite of the flames that were spitting from gaping craters all around them. The fire shot upward forty or fifty feet to lick the soot-black sky, rising nearly the height of the buildings around them, skeletal buildings with supports and girders jutting like splintered bones from enormous holes torn into the walls.
The sickening-sweet reek of burning meat cut through the icy air and distant screaming voices rose to the sky with the belching flames.
Other craters shot fire in the distance and one of them--far beyond the patch of land that, a moment ago, was the grassy playing field--was surrounded by a circle of people in tattered white robes streaked with soot, their hands lifted upward. Although her vision was blurred, either by tears or by the heat from the fire--
--Or because this is a dream, she thought, that's all, I'm still in bed having a nightmare--
--she saw one of the robed figures step forward holding something bundled in a blanket. The blanket was peeled away ceremoniously and tossed aside and a flesh-pink lump with four struggling limbs was lifted above the figure's head.
Lizzie squinted, struggling to see better.
No, no . . .
Chanting voices murmured like ghosts on the breeze and with them came the frail, distant cries of the infant.
Lizzie took a breath to cry out but the child was already tumbling through the air, head over feet, swallowed by the fire before it even began its descent.
Cries of agony came from every direction, piercing the darkness in which vague shapes writhed and shifted, and there was an odd sound from overhead, a sound like wings flapping, very big wings. Lizzie looked up at the thick, greasy darkness, but saw nothing. When she lowered her eyes, they fell on something in the darkness to her left. It looked like . . . could it be ... a pile of bodies! She looked closer, squinting and--
--Lizzie screamed, a keening wail, uncontrollable, clutching at her lungs like rat's claws and she looked into Hester's dead eyes again and--
--the two girls began to rise, leaving the corpses below them, lifting weightlessly on the black air and hovering over the fire-breathing craters, unnoticed by those below, some of whom ran for cover, always looking upward, while others fought, beating one another with spiked clubs and heavy chains, while still others walked through the darkness slowly and at ease, the hems of their dirty white robes slapping gently at their feet.
Dim lights glowed in the windows of battered houses while black smoke billowed from others.
Cries of pain and death rose toward them in voices young and old.
They began to move faster and faster until all below them was a dark, muddy blur and Lizzie managed to stop her screaming, lower it to a few deep, gripping sobs, and when she looked down again, they were slowing, descending over a mountain topped with red-streaked snow and on the other side of the mountain was--
It was a pretty house, a big white U, filled with light, but it made Lizzie want to vomit because--
--the light was black. It was not real light, not good light, not the light Lizzie knew, that you could read by or warm to, but a light that was made of darkness, a cancerous light, thick and smothering, and as they drew closer to the house Lizzie began to cry harder, on the verge of screaming again, because coming from the house, she heard--
But it was not happy laughter.
They passed over the clean white roof of the house until they were floating over dense, dark green woods, falling lower and lower until--
--they were below the high tops of the trees, darting back and forth to avoid them, lower and lower until--
--they were just inches above the ground and ahead of them, Lizzie saw--
--a cave filled with blackness, and they shot through the opening, plunging deep into the darkness until--
--Lizzie saw a faint blue glow ahead of them that grew brighter as they shot deeper into the cave and the light made her ill, made her tremble because, like the light in the house, it was wrong, it was unnatural, and she began to scream as she turned and looked into Hester's eyes, lifeless flat eyes with something lurking behind them, something that slithered and settled, waiting patiently and--
--through Hester's mouth, it spoke:
"The child is mine, and through her I will bring about what is to be. Let . . . her . . . alone!"
Hester released Lizzie's head and Lizzie fell back in the gravel, limp as a springless puppet.
The playground was suddenly as it had been an instant before.
Children were playing.
A gentle rain began to fall.
Lizzie Dayton wet her pants. . . .