Everyone knew when it was time.
Didn’t matter if they’d been born decades before, years before, even months before one. Everyone who had been born in the community KNEW when it was time for the Harvest.
We’d have one every year, but they always used our worst supply of plant stock for things like apple fritters, apple cider, caramel apples, you name it. There’d be a few activities like apple picking and pumpkin farms and creating cider, but it wasn’t much.
We’d also have one every decade. They would use the stock that wasn’t great, but wasn’t terrible for our treats. They’d have much fancier decorations and much better activities. They’d have a tractor ride, a pumpkin carving stand, pony rides, even a few electronic rides like a ferris wheel and a carousel, but they’d mostly save the electricity. On top of it, some of the lower quality retailers would sell their best goods, which due to resources, wasn’t much.
But every fifty years, the Harvest was rumored to be extravagant. I’d never been to a fifty year Harvest, neither had my siblings or my parents. My grandparents had, but they refuse to talk about it. Whenever we’d bring it up, they’d get so quiet. They were also very stoic around the village leader, and they never told us why.
I had been to a lot of the annual Harvests, and only one decadential (that was what they called it) Harvests. But this year, on my birthday, is the first 50 year Harvest that I’d get to go to.
We knew it was coming up because handouts and rations were severely limited about a month beforehand for this Harvest. In spite of this, as I was the youngest, I’d always been given the most, which sorta bulked me up. You’d think this’d make someone unattractive, but when resources aren’t so plentiful, the bigger girls start to look attractive to the guys, and even to some girls and non-binary people.
And now as I sit in my room, getting on my white Sunday best dress as my mom told me to wear, I have this feeling that something isn’t quite right. About two days ago, I was given an invitation at school to be a special guest to the Harvest. So had several other classmates, a few boys and a few girls as well as a handful of non-binary and genderfluid people. But everyone who received one was eighteen or soon with be eighteen, no older or younger.
My mother calls me downstairs and we walk over to the Harvest. This year, it’s placed only a few miles from what is known as the Devil’s Peak. Legend has it that below the Peak is a direct portal to Hell or the Underworld and anyone who falls from it is trapped there for eternity. I’d always found myself drawn to this place and would often take detours to read my Bible, read for fun, write if I had enough paper rations or could scrape something together, or even just sit by it and look down into it. Sometimes I’d have conversations with it and I could swear that it would answer back. I’d tell my friends about this and they’d just laugh about it, joking that the Devil was in love with me and was calling to me like that one chick in the book about the Phantom that we had to read in tenth grade.
We meet up with my grandparents, all dressed in black as if they’re going to a funeral, just outside the gates. Even from here, I can see the reason why they needed to ration the electricity so severely. Everything is so colorful. They’d apparently even saved up a huge supply of neon for this occasion. There’s even supposed to be a fireworks show. I can’t wait until it gets dark to see how pretty it all looks.
I spy my friends waving to me. I go over and talk to them for a bit.
“Hey, Ryland,” I greet my best friend enthusiastically.
They’d gotten an invitation to be a special guest, so had my other best friend Dakota.
“What’s up, Jacqueline?” Ryland asks as they look over me.
“Are your grandparents dressed all in black as well?”
I look around. All of the special guests’ grandparents ARE wearing black.
“That’s weird,” I remark.
“Anyway, are we going to be able to hang out at the Harvest?”
“Only for a little bit,” Dakota signs.
“My grandparents told me we’re spending the last half together as a family.”
“Yeah, mine did as well,” Ryland remarks.
“So did mine,” I exclaim.
“Did they say why?”
“No, they just wept,” Dakota signs.
“My granddad was in tears, and he never cries.”
“Same with my grandparents,” Ryland notices.
“What did they see at the last 50 year Harvest?” Dakota signs with a concerned look on her face.
“Isn’t this supposed to be a time of joy like usual? What’s so different about this one?”
“No clue,” I answer.
“Whenever my parents or I ask them about it, they get all silent and stoic.”
“Do they also get that way around the village leader?” Ryland asks.
“Yeah,” I gasp.
“I thought mine were the only ones.”
“Nope,” Dakota signs shaking her head and pursing her lips in fear.
“Mine too. It’s like he’s the Devil or something to them, and maybe that’s why this Harvest is near Devil’s Peak.”
“Maybe he is. Maybe Devil’s Peak leads to his home. Maybe he’s looking for his Chosen One,” Ryland chuckles as they look at me.
“Oh shut up!” I laugh giving them a light punch on the arm.
“If I really was the Devil’s Chosen One, my hand would be burnt from all those times they made us read our Bibles.”
“Enough of this devil’s chosen one shit,” Dakota signs and she smiles.
“I’m starving! Let’s go check out the Harvest!”
The rumors are true. The foods are amazing and given out for free. The finest merchants from local communities had brought their best items to sell. I have no money: until you’re 18, you’re not to touch money in the community. They see it as a corrupting influence on youth.
At noon, there is a Bible play. We go because there is free food and I get to watch some of the seventeen year olds shine. I can’t wait to see where they go in life.
After the Bible play, we head off to our respective families. To our surprise, we find all of the special guests’ families coming out of the chapel where the village leader is. They look so visibly shaken that we can’t help but feel that something isn’t right.
But they refuse to say what happened.
My parents allow me to buy whatever I want that day. I figure that I may not see another fifty-year Harvest, what with my family being so below the poverty line in the community. I don’t always get enough to eat, even with me being plus-sized.
At about 6:00 pm, we all gather at the edge of the Harvest where all of the special guests sit in the front; their families sit behind them. The village leader, Job Ashton, greets us all. He recites some speech about keeping the Devil away and whatnot and how we must make peace with even our enemies, even if it means we lose something. I sort of drown him out and shake my leg. I can’t sit in one place for too long. My body just won’t let me.
At about 6:30 pm, he rises his hands and, as we all stand, says solemnly,
“It is time.”
Gasps and cries ripple behind us. Our families grasp us close. Job takes his big walking stick and comes to the front of the group. And we begin the walk.
Our families refuse to let go of us for the entire walk. I squirm and struggle, as I don’t find comfort in prolonged touch. In fact I find it downright overwhelming.
“Where are we going?” we keep asking.
Our families stay stoic as they walk on.
Finally we reach a point where I feel much calmer. We come to a stop when Job orders us to get into a semi-circle as the community’s “chosen apostles,” who are really all men vying to be the next community leader when Job bites the dust, finish making a star in a circle out of what looks to be coal. When we get into formation, he starts again.
“Though all lives are valuable in the eyes of the Great Creator, some lives must be tossed to the ground for the greater good. The fools, the adulterers, the cowardly, the rebellious, all must pay for their sins, as they cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”
Suddenly I hear a scream coming from my left. I whirl my head around, tuning Job out. Far down the line, one of the special guests, Tammy Rhodes, is being pulled from her family and tossed to the ground by an apostle. When she tries to get back up, he places his foot on top of her back; I see him lean down to her for a few moments, before kicking her towards the circle. He then hands her family a bag of some sort.
This keeps going for each family. The closer he gets to Dakota who is on my left, the more enraged I become. How could Job just stand there and let all of these kids get beaten like that? My mother knows what I’m tempted to do. She grasps tightly onto my hands.
Finally he gets to Dakota. She opens her mouth to scream, but nothing comes out. He pins her to the floor.
“Your name?” he interrogates her.
She tries to sign her name, but the apostle immediately brings his foot down on her hands. She lets out a painful, raspy scream.
“What the hell is your name? Are you retarded or something, bitch?”
And that’s when I can’t bear it anymore. I pull away from my mother and whirl the apostle around to face me.
“Leave her alone,” I spit in his face.
“She can’t speak, and communicates by signing. If you dare hurt her again---”
He pushes me to the ground before continuing to severely interrogate Dakota, all while keeping his foot on her hands. Seeing red, I crawl towards the apostle and bite down on his leg bringing him to the ground. I scratch, I hit, I do whatever I can to get him away from Dakota. Finally, after a lot of screaming, I have him pinned down on the ground.
“You dare call yourself an apostle,” I rasp.
“An ambassador of God Himself, but even though God said to protect the disabled, you abuse my friend for trying to use an alternative method of communication?”
The crowd has gone dead silent when I hear footsteps approach me. Looking up, I find Job hovering above me maliciously.
“You apostate!” he hisses.
“You bitch! You dare speak for God, yet hurt one of His apostles? You are corrupt, you are a whore of Jezebel, you are a witch, you are one of the Devil---!”
“SHUT YOUR FUCKING MOUTH!” I screech.
Gasps ripple throughout the crowd as I stand and face him.
“You dare call him an apostle? The apostles Paul, Peter, John, they wouldn’t abuse the disabled. This man is no apostle.”
“You are not authorized to decide who is and is not a godly man!”
“Neither are you, Job,” a voice behind me speaks up in defiance.
The crowd parts to let my grandmother to the front.
“Mary, get back to your place,” Job hisses.
“No, I’ve had enough of you,” she defies, as she stands tall as Joan of Arc once stood up against a sexist and ungodly court system only to be burnt at the stake.
“It is not becoming of a woman to speak out of turn,” he reminds her with condescending anger.
“Neither is it becoming of a man to force poverty-stricken families to give up their children for the Harvest and try to pay them off with resources.”
“It is the lesser of two evils.”
“All sins are equal in God’s eyes. And I think it’s time all of us witnesses reveal what your family did to us fifty years ago.”
He narrows his eyes before gesturing to another apostle, this one armed with a gun.
“The Ashton Family has forced all of us,” my grandmother continues, loud enough for all to hear.
“Witnesses of the previous Harvest, into silence. What we saw, those only just out of childhood be ripped from their families, beaten, abused, before being thrown into flames, cost us not just our innocence, not just our happiness, but also our faith in what this community was doing.
“Those of us witnesses, dressed in black, had the courage to stand up against his father and his entire family. All of our protests, met with first bribes, then threats, and then treacherous promises, fell on deaf ears in the rest of the community. Those of us dressed in black, we are the families Job and his father have made certain stayed below the poverty line, made sure all of our children were 18 by this Harvest, because we weren’t ashamed to stand for what was right.
“This sacrifice is ungodly. Pre-destining mere children to be thrown into flames, as King Nebuchadnezzar sentenced Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to death in a furnace, is immoral. And by the power of the Creator Himself, I pray that these children shall be saved just as the three Hebrews in the furnace were!”
The apostle sets up his gun and aims it at my grandmother. I feel a sensation in my brain, telling me that I must do something to save her. My heart jumping in my chest, I know what I have to do. I jump in front of her just as the bullet is about to hit her. It pierces my shoulder blade and I fall to the dirt-covered rocky ground, biting my lips to keep myself from crying out in pan.
“Jacqueline!” Ryland yells out as they run to me.
But before they can get to me, Job himself drags me to the circle of coals, where the others are waiting, before ordering two other apostles to drag Ryland and Dakota into it as well.
I cover the bullet wound with my arm as my grandmother breaks from the crowd and steps inside before kneeling down next to me.
“Jacqui,” she whispers mournfully as she takes me in her arms.
“Why did you do that?”
I purse my lips together as I stare into my grandma’s gentle brown eyes. Those eyes have been through Hell, and now they’re about to return.
“God said He couldn’t let you die yet,” I whisper back.
“It wasn’t your time to go yet.”
She tries to remove the bullet from the wound in my shoulder. Wincing in pain, tears start to form in my eyes.
“G-grandma,” I rasp, feeling a lump in my throat as I try to hold the tears back.
“It hurts so bad, Grandma.”
“I know, sweetheart. I know.”
“I’m sorry,” I squeak.
“I’m sorry this is happening. I’m sorry I exist---!”
“No,” my grandma says sharply.
“Don’t you ever apologize for your existence. The Lord would not have created you if He didn’t want you to exist. Everyone is created by the Lord, and the Lord does not hate His children.”
“E-even Job and his family?” I croak out.
My grandma closes her eyes and sighs.
“Yes,” she admits.
“Even Job and his family.”
“Then why is he doing this?”
“Because he has been lead astray like his father and his father before him.”
Suddenly she takes ahold of my hand.
“Jacqui, honey,” she says gently as tears begin to fall.
“If you and I get out of this, I want us to make a vow that we will pray day and night for Job’s deliverance unto compassion and kindness.”
I nod as the tears start to drop down my face.
“I promise,” I whisper to her.
She leans down to kiss my cheek. I close my eyes as I feel her warmth radiate against my face, a warmth that makes me believe, even for just one second, that everything will be okay. But suddenly, the warmth rapidly fades away. My eyes shoot open as arms force me upward and standing. One apostle holds my head facing forward while the other has my arms pinned down. I see that Job has a gun and he’s pointing it at my grandmother’s head. She’s bent down in a prayer position.
“No!” I scream trying to slip from the apostles’ grasp.
“It’s okay, Jacqui,” I hear her sigh.
“I’ll be with the Lord soon.”
At the moment Job pulls the trigger, everything seems to go in slow motion. The crack of the barrel, the blood splattering everywhere, my grandmother falling to the ground, her hands still in the prayer pose.
All of the blood drains from my face. I purse my lips to try to keep back the tears, my chest begins to clench up, my heart pumps out of rhythm. I want to believe this isn’t happening.
I’m so caught up in the image, I don’t notice the apostles stepping out of the circle. I don’t notice Job lighting a torch. I don't even notice him and the other apostles setting the coals ablaze, not until the curtain of fire closes, separating my grandmother and I.
I drop to my knees in defeat. My grandmother was just shot before my own eyes. And now all of us in this circle are about be burnt alive.
Suddenly a flash of red light blinds us all. From it swaggers a man dressed in all black. He has raven-black hair, red eyes, and, admittedly, quite a handsome face.
“Line up in one row,” he orders us in a mesmerizing voice.
I feel as though I’ve lost control of my feet, as I march towards him against my will. He begins to inspect us all, first by having us gaze into his eyes. I look over to those before me and I see their eyes turn red. Once he’s finished, he snaps his fingers and their eyes return to normal. Just the mere sight of it makes me tremble in fright. Is this some sort of demonic type of hypnotism that we have to endure?
Soon enough it’s my turn. He tries to grasp my will through his red eyes, but immediately I begin to mentally go through Bible verses and passages in my head. I think of every Bible story I’ve had to memorize for my Religion Studies class. I think of every verse I can, from every book I can remember. I pray to Him. I do anything I can to prevent this demonic presence from possessing me.
Listen, God. I know I’m not a good person. I disobey authority. I swear. I rebel. I lie sometimes. I am a fool. I am a sinner. I need Christ. I know You are real.
After sometime, he gives up and I breathe a sigh of relief as he moves onto the next one.
Once he’s finished, he steps back and glances down the row for a small amount of time. I feel as though time has slowed down once again. Butterflies fill my stomach and my legs knock together as I wait for his verdict.
Finally, after what seems like an eternity, he clears his throat.
“This is.........a fine crop that you have presented me with,” he says slowly.
“But I shall deny the majority.”
Gasps and whispers ripple throughout the crowd.
“Silence!” he commands.
The whole crowd falls into a hush as he continues.
“All are free to go, except..........for her.”
He raises a finger and points to...........me? I whirl around the group of sacrifices before indicating to myself for clarification.
“Yes,” he answers with a smirk as he slithers towards me.
This demonic presence towers over me once again. He spreads his arms to the side, tossing away the others as if they were rag dolls. He then begins to inspect me.
“Uh-huh,” he ponders as if he was looking at a painting in a museum.
“Yes, quite lovely. Fairly plump, but all the better. Innocent-looking, but......”
He leans into me and whispers.
“It makes you all the more desirable, my dear.”
I shiver in fright and discomfort before he continues to inspect me. Time slows down once more. But finally he finishes. Stepping back his eyes scan me up and down before he smiles.
“Yes,” he purrs seductively.
“Yes, this one shall make a lovely bride for me.”
I shake my head and stare at him in confusion. The Devil, Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub himself, wants ME for a bride?
“I’m sorry,” I speak up with a slight nervous laugh weaved within.
“I believe I misheard you. I thought said you wanted me to be your bride.”
“Oh no. No, you heard very correctly, my sweet.”
This makes me even more confused.
“You’re beautiful, strong, and stubborn. You were also the one who I spoke with when you came to my Peak.”
My eyes grow wide as I remember all the supposedly fake conversations I’d had with the Peak.
“So it wasn’t a trick of the wind. It was really you responding?”
“Indeed. You have been the only one brave enough to approach my Peak on a regular basis. Even that bastard Job and his family dares not to approach this Peak, except for when it works in their favor.”
He slinks up to me.
“I also saw how you stood up for your pretty little friend and your strong-willed grandmother against these self-named apostles.”
He takes a finger and curls it under my chin, forcing me to meet him face-to-face.
“Now tell me, my love. What is your name?”
I gulp in fear before speaking.
“Jacqueline,” I reply.
His mouth curls into a sickening grin.
“You are a strong-willed individual, Jacqueline. And that is what I have been searching for the most in my queen.”
All of a sudden, he grasp ahold of my wrist as he uses his free hand to command the flames to rise and encircle us.
“What’s going on?” I exclaim.
“This is a proper portal for sacrifices. Much easier than hypnotizing them to jump from the Peak.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“Why, your new kingdom, of course. Your kingdom in Hell!”
The flames roar as they begin to drown us. It slithers around my body, before crushing the life out of me. I try to resist it, but soon my body gives way, and I fall into darkness and silence.