Her scream is shrill but no one hears. Her slap violent, but against her own cheek the pain offers comfort. Shards of glass line the floor. Blood like confetti on the porcelain sink streak toward checkered linoleum, where red footprints map her erratic pacing. Patches of blonde hair mix with blood, strands of white litter her clothing, skin. Her tear stained face.

Chelsea catches her reflection in what’s left of the mirror, a jagged strip of glass stuck to an ornate gold frame. Eyes, normally clear and turquoise, are pink and swollen with hysteria. Lipstick smeared across her freckled cheek, a diamond stud ripped from her left ear, now encrusted with blood.

What remains of her hair, the few short patches of blonde, rise from her exposed scalp like lone soldiers after battle. Chelsea runs a hand through the pattern on her head having never felt her scalp. The unsettling transition in texture from loose strands to stubble to cold flesh, solidifies the reality of these past few minutes. And of the minutes to come. The blur of his cabin, the candlelit dinner, his warm gaze turned vacant in an instant, eyes two endless black holes after she insisted on leaving. As if the man who prepared the evening had vanished, replaced by a void. A vacant shell.

Then his hands on her throat. In her hair. Dragging Chelsea across the hall as she screamed, pleaded. His fist thrust against her skull, the painful dizziness that followed, the sudden burn as he lifted her by the hair till she was back on her feet. Which is when the first lock of white fell like a feather before her eyes. Another dull snip as a tuft of hair collided with the floor. It took a moment to recognize what was happening, but when she did, Chelsea’s body shook.

“Finish it,” he said, handing her the shears.

She thought to stab him, run to the car, make an escape, but knew he’d stop her. Twice her size, both in height and muscle, it would take nothing for him to break her. She was paralyzed by fear.

Richard is well over six feet, arms sculpted wider than her thigh. Handsome and confident, like an undiscovered Hollywood star dressed from another era. Plucked from a 1950’s film in form fitting slacks, a soft blue polo, hair slicked to the side with a defined part. If she’d seen him on the street unaware of who he was, Chelsea would probably smile. Flirt. From the exterior, Richard is any girls dream, until alone with him. Or in Chelsea’s case, after inserting herself into his life.

She researched Richard Clark for months, gathering statements from other girls he met, online ads posted in search of “a woman who felt called to an Enlightened Path”. Most refused to speak about Richard, Chelsea getting the same immediate door slam or hang up. But then there was Maggie Rodgers, a former follower of Richard Clark before escaping. It was Maggie’s interview that led Chelsea further down the rabbit hole, uncovering darker secrets about Richard and his beliefs. The silent, countless collection of followers at his disposal. But soon her research came to a halt, dead end after dead end, with her editor pushing for a deadline.

It had been two years since Chelsea’s last major story, an explosive piece that gained national attention for theories on a media-controlled culture that stripped our free will. The programing of countless generations through a manufactured reality; limiting brain function and awareness. It was the first time anything she wrote was met with such attention, all of which Chelsea struggled to accept after the article left her questioning her own reality. Whether this was a world she could be part of. It was her father’s original research and ultimate death that started Chelsea down this path, but she never imagined where it would lead. How doubts of one’s own perception of their world could be so isolating. What defines existence if not our free will, experiences, and personal truth?

But when Chelsea caught word of a man grooming women for what sounded like a cult, she pitched the article and investigated what sparse leads she could find. The Richard Clark story gave her focus, something to attach herself to. And once the leads dried up, Chelsea decided to create her own. Last month after a few glasses of wine she responded to his post with a photo of herself, along with a message that read: I am very interested to learn more. Please reach me. She left her number and received a text thirty minutes later.

They spoke every day, Richard slowly revealing more of his beliefs about the universe and mankind. It was exactly what Maggie explained, Richard strategically infiltrating himself into her life. It started small, a few comments about the state of the world. Comments about the news, the president, how there must be a better way to combat global corruption, the destruction of our planet and species. It was all so insidious that Chelsea found herself haunted by his words at night when her mind began to still. His ideas of a new way to exist, a more gentle and expansive state of being that would lift our spirits to a higher realm. It was crazy, she knew it was all banter from an insane man, but at times it was intoxicating. And those moments they spent together, Richard intensely speaking of a new life, a greater world—so passionate and charming—those moments when he could sense Chelsea shut down to his ideas, he’d openly laugh at himself and say she must find him crazy. He became light-hearted and sensitive, which when paired with his physicality and charm, was an alluring poison.

When Richard invited her to his cabin, Chelsea knew it was foolish to go. Alone together in the woods, miles from another person; but she had to know where it would lead. There’s a chest of secrets hidden within Richard Clark and Chelsea has to discover the truth. Maggie calls it a cult, but none of his followers know each other. They rarely meet, let alone reveal their identity, but somehow all work in unison at his whim. Maggie only got so deep before breaking away, and even then Richard’s supporters came after her. One day a bouquet of flowers were delivered anonymously to her office along with a small package. She opened the box to find a copperhead snake coiled round the remnants of a rat. From then on, Maggie described feeling followed; cars trailing her, silhouettes across the street at night. To the police she sounded like another paranoid woman, especially with nothing to prove.

Days ago, while they sat together on a park bench watching children climb a boulder, Richard called them a herd of sheep he felt saddened for. “They’ll never know the truth,” he said. “They’ll grow up in oblivion, in a world of darkness. Their parents will continue feeding them lies, the same lies they were fed by their parents. They’ll sit wide-eyed and numb before a television screen, absorbing the garbage we’re programmed by.”

He sipped his coffee, black. Chelsea took a small bite of her croissant then placed it in the bag.

“But not you,” he continued, “You’re not like the cattle. There’s something brilliant inside you, Chelsea, something radiant.

I’ve never met anyone with your frequency. I’ve searched for so long only to have finally found you. Are you ready to discover a higher dimension? The Great Source of all Spirit. Away from all this…”

His voice trailed as though lost is another thought.

She felt captivated by his enigmatic pull, an abyss of mystery hidden within the black of his pupils. Like tentacles wrapped round her, his romantic ideals were clearly warped but intriguing still. Before reason and reality entered, Chelsea found herself nodding at his question. And if anything, she had to know what was behind the curtain. She had to unsheathe this story.

His hand placed upon hers, he said, “Come to my cabin this weekend. I will show you everything. We can face a new horizon together.”

And that was it.

She insisted he give her the address of the cabin, which she shared with her editor and Maggie Rodgers. Chelsea wanted to drive herself, but Richard said it was impossible to find on her own. Maggie told her not to go, even she had never been to Richard’s cabin. As far as Maggie knew, no one had. But there was no option for Chelsea.

Armed with a can of mace and pocket knife in her purse, Chelsea got into Richard’s blue Pontiac stripped from the same era as his clothes, and the two drove into the depths of Mission Hill forest.

***

 

Now with scissors still in hand, Chelsea grabs the last tussle of hair, extends it toward the ceiling and with a final scream watches it fall to the bloodstained floor.
Done.
Her hair gone.

The result is reminiscent of a doll she remembers her brother mutilating when they were kids. Safari Barbie post scalp butchering, clumps of silken strands alongside blonde bulbs in the form of cranial crop circles. Full makeup, deep blue eyeshadow, a vibrant pink lip; tight-fitting, leopard print mini dress with gold studded heels.

A veil of abstraction clouds her vision. Blood-stained hands, the shattered mirror, her distorted reflection. What was simply the bathroom where she washed her hands before dinner has been coated with a surreal veneer. The Chelsea from thirty-minutes ago lost in a parallel universe.

And with only seconds before Richard comes into the bathroom, she looks for a way out. A small rectangular window in the shower, but no way she’d fit through. He’d barge in to find Chelsea like a pig in a blanket, ass out, legs dangling from the window unable to push herself free. She can scream for help, but there’s no point. This is his private cabin with no neighbors for miles. Why the fuck did I agree to this, she thinks. You’re a fucking moron, Chelsea.

As she catches her reflection in a shard of mirror on the floor, a grisly face she doesn’t recognize, Chelsea knows her only way out is to play along. Maybe if she can get to her purse, the mace, grab his keys and call someone. Anyone. It’s her only chance. And still a nagging part of her needs to know more, what else is Richard Clark planning? What does he want?

A firm knock on the door.

She can barely open her mouth to speak. Heart thudding, skin electric.

Rapid knocking turns to banging.

Chelsea trembles, grips the sink.

The door is kicked open with a soul-splitting crack. Richard stands in the frame like a dapper son-of-a-bitch, a deep line of blood down his chiseled cheekbone from where Chelsea scratched him.

He has to believe you, she thinks. And with all the strength Chelsea can muster, says:

“I’m ready.”

***

 

Standing in the living room, Chelsea can see Richard has moved the dining table against the wall, sofa pushed back, an open space in the center of the cabin, white sheet spread across the floor. Richard lights the last of a dozen candles.

Her purse was on a green armchair, but it’s gone.

“What are we doing, Richard?”

Footsteps punctuate his silence as Richard moves around the room. Shifts a chair to the corner, a white terrycloth towel on the sheet, a large glass bowl of water placed alongside.

Chelsea scans the room for her purse, then for a sign as to what’s about to happen. If Richard plans to rape her, kill her—she has no idea and that’s the true horror.

“Richard, please. Tell me what’s happening. I’m ready for whatever it is, but please tell me.” Her voice is low, shaky. A coat of sweat down her back, on her exposed scalp; body twitches from what feels like ice running through her veins, cold and alarming despite dripping in sweat. Her breathing is short and quick, she tries to still her nerves, appear willing as any asshole who might fall for this shit.

Richard stands across from Chelsea. It’s the first time he’s looked into her eyes since dinner. It’s as if whatever maniac had taken over his body vanished. Expression soft, body lax.

He hands her a washcloth.

“Here. Now, please, take off your clothes.”

Richard turns to offer her privacy, bows his head toward the wood floor. “All of it.”

“Don’t make me do this. Please—.” She trembles, her ability to play along diminishes.

“Remove your clothing.”

“And what, Richard? You’re going to rape me?”

He turns, eyes wide in what reflects shock. Then concern.

“God, no. No, I would never—why would you think that? You know this is about so much more than sex. I would never.        Remove your clothing and scrub yourself with the purification water.”

“And then what, Richard? Tell me. Please I’ll do anything, I just need to know!”

“This is about sovereignty of Spirit, you know this. We must first break through your decades of human conditioning. The programming from your ancestors, from the media, from trauma.”

“By killing me?”

“By releasing your Spirit from the shackles of its prison.”

“I want my spirit released. I do, Richard, I do—but I don’t want to die. Please.” Her attempt to remain calm is fleeting as it becomes clear what Richard is preparing to do. She has to find a way out; has to fight. She’s either going to die complacent or give everything to escape.

He steps closer.

“Remove your clothes, scrub yourself.”

And before she can speak, his hand rises then crashes against her face, knocking Chelsea to the floor. The sharp pain of his force swells her cheek, pulls tears from her eyes.

“I will not ask you again. Take them off and clean yourself.”

Chelsea holds her face, feels the heat of blood pumping to her cheek. Body crumbled on the floor like a baby bird fallen from its nest.

“My editor knows I’m here. He has this address.”

“He has an address, but I promise it’s not this one.”

Chelsea always thought she wouldn’t be that girl, the one in a horror movie who walks right into the killer’s trap. Yet here she is.

“I know Maggie Rodgers,” she pleads, “I’ve spoken to her. She knows I’m here.”

“Maggie?”

“Yes. She told me everything, she knows I’m here. She’ll go to the police and they will find you.”

He smiles. It’s genuine.

“Maggie Rodgers is one of my brightest Lightworkers. She’s been dedicated to our cause as long as I have.”

“No. She left—.”

“Why do you think you’re here, Chelsea? If not for Maggie, I don’t know how else you would have found me. She got you right where you needed to be, chasing the story to this very moment. It’s how I knew you were the One. Dedicated. So focused on exposing truth. Ever since I read your research on cultural brainwashing and free will, I knew. I knew you were the One. And here you are, a moth to a flame.”

“How? How did you—.”

“Because I know you, Chelsea Maxine Sawyer. I know everything there is about you. Born March 6, 1979 at Mount Sinai to Carol and Philip Sawyer. Mother, an elementary school teacher; father, a writer for the Times. I know you’ve never had a friend, not a real one, because you’ve had an instinct even as a child to never trust anyone. An instinct that only intensified after your father took his own life when you were sixteen, just before finishing what would be his posthumous masterpiece on human conditioning. Faulted, yes, but ahead of its time.”

He places a hand atop her ravaged scalp, a touch sickening while somehow comforting. Tears line her face; she violently heaves as though Richard has uncovered something buried deep within her then ripped it out.

“And I knew the moment I watched you step into that bath, drag a blade across your wrists, that you were the One.”

She looks to him, a filleted version of the woman she once knew, an expression of broken sincerity awash her face.
It was the most alone she had ever felt, the darkest night in a never-ending cycle of dark nights. She barely remembers stepping into the bath, cutting her wrists. When she thinks of that night, when flashes creep into her mind, she sees drops of red. Blood like ink swirling into the water, down the tub, against her knees that rise like glaciers in a sea of crimson. But the rest is gone. And maybe it’s best that way, to not remember.

She never knew how the police found her, no one identified the call. But she now understands it was Richard Clark. For two years Chelsea thought her unsuccessful suicide to be an act of irony, a punishment that forced her to continue living. The thought of trudging through life felt impossible. She couldn’t imagine waking up morning after morning, forced to make meaningless small talk, trapped in an empty life, surrounded by people who didn’t understand.

It was after the article was published, the piece dedicated to carrying on her father’s work, that she decided to create her own end. The article had given Chelsea purpose, she had never felt so driven. But then it was done, and just like that she had nothing. As her name and work gained acclaim, Chelsea’s need to isolate increased. She began to realize the power of her word, the power a writer has to shape the perspective of their reader. Perception is so acutely constructed by what we absorb in life, and Chelsea didn’t want the responsibility. Her exposure of truth is still her perception of truth. And while she sought to show that truth, that our understanding of the world, of our very reality, is determined by what we consume, Chelsea knew she only added to the feeding process. Her research was formulated by her own inescapable perception, a lifetime of programing and conditioning from every possible form—family, friends, acquaintances, associations, experiences, trauma, media. The list is endless. A never-ending rabbit hole back to the very beginning of man, our need to label and define the world around us—time, space, emotion—everything we’ve come to understand we understand nothing about. Our comprehension is based entirely upon another man’s perception of another man’s truth. And another. And another. We create systems of identification to keep structure and order, but in turn only limit the true potential of our power. Her theory only proved to be a cage from which she could never become free, this was the world in which we live. The game we are forced to play.

Chelsea knew her father had found similar conclusions, but his work led down a path of government control and conspiracy theory. His suicide was shrouded in mystery, but Chelsea knew it had to do with his research. Whether he uncovered something that should’ve remain buried or his theories proved too unbearable for him to handle. Too lonely for one man to carry.

Richard dips the washcloth in the bowl of water, gently rubs it down her shoulder. Chelsea is too hurt, too lost to fight it. He slips down the strap of her dress and wipes her arm. The water is room temperature but feels cool against her burning skin.

“I know every time you walk out your front door, when you make a call, when you turn on your computer. When you step into the shower and wash your body with lavender scented soap from the market on 23rd.”

Chelsea hangs her head as he wipes the washcloth along the small of her neck, her spine. Trails of water race down her back.

“When you sit alone in front of a plate of food and wonder what the point of it all is. If maybe your father was on to something, if maybe you’ve followed more in his footsteps than you’d thought.”

His words a whisper that cut her to the marrow. No one is waiting for her, no one concerned for her whereabouts, she is alone. This has been planned and Richard Clark is—

“Insane. You think I’m insane. I completely understand.” He kneels to face her. “I can’t imagine what you’re feeling Chelsea, the fear. It must be horrible and I’m sorry. But that fear, you know, is the result of an imposed perception constructed by the world we live in. It isn’t real. None of this is real. And that fear, what it is really? Who does it belong to? Is it yours or was it adopted from someone else?”

There is a pause that feels infinite. A stretch of time where the only sound is the washcloth being wrung into the water. Her thoughts have slowed, releasing herself to the moment. To Richard Clark. Flames burn bright in the dark cabin, shadows dance along the walls. There is a thread weaving itself inside her, a feeling of familiarity. A thread that winds and grows with each pass of water against her skin. A strength she hadn’t felt before. A calm.

Chelsea puts her hand over his, pushes it toward the bowl. Richard looks to her, studies her face with a pensive gaze. Together they dip the washcloth and rub it down her chest.

She says, “I wasn’t going to say insane.”

Chelsea stands. Slips off the remainder of her dress, it pools at her feet. She reaches behind her back, unhooks her bra then pulls down her underwear.

Richard rises to her eye level. He smiles a handsome, subtle grin.

“Truth is the same as the clothes on your back. Manmade. Remove them to reveal what lies beneath the surface, the vulnerable, naked self. Our lives are a house of cards, Chelsea, constructed to keep us in place, to feel secure. In control. Do we ever really have control? It can all be blown over, destroyed in an instant. But what remains is truth. The true self. The spirit. Caged within lies of flesh and bone. And when you peel it all back, what’s left?”

He stares into her eyes. Her body, her flesh bare before him. His energy thick, warm. It wraps her, pulls her closer. And she understands.

“It’s our most primal power—.” Richard begins, but she speaks before he can finish.

“Instinct,” she says. “Intuition.”

Chelsea is overcome by stillness, her breath deep. With every inhale her body expands, each exhale brings lightness. She feels herself in every corner of the room, as if floating toward the ceiling. To the sky.

“And what does your intuition tell you, Chelsea?”

She sees her father. An image of his face, his beard, backlit by a golden sun. He smiles; he looks so young, so bright and carefree. His brown hair shaggy like she remembers, blowing with a gentle breeze. She’s certain it’s a memory from her childhood, on a canoe at their lake house in Maine. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s more than a memory.

“What does it say, Chelsea?”

It is believed that truth will set you free, but it’s in freedom that truth is found.

“I’m ready.”

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