My name: Agatha Johnson. The date: November 10, 1978. The place: The People’s Church Agricultural Project in Guyana, also known as Johnsontown. The realization: Our cult was in its waning days. My Mission: To ensure my children survived any mass murder/suicide plot initiated by Dad. The revelation: Comrade Scott had the perfect mix of toughness, confidence and balls necessary to become my accomplice.
“Alert, alert,” Dad said, as the blaring sirens beckoned us to the pavilion. “Hurry, my children. There’re traitors among us.”
Seventeen-year-old Scott and fifteen-year-old Comrade Benny were paraded before the community.
“Where’d you assholes think you were going?” Dad spoke, accentuating syllables, as the toxic mix of booze, barbiturates and benzepam flowed through his polluted bloodstream.
Scott leered into Dad’s glazed peepers. Benny’s hands quavered like leaves in a hurricane.
“Kaituma,” Scott replied, in a normal, conversational tone. “We’d hop a flight and deadhead our way to Georgetown, then hoof it to the Embassy.”
Dad entered into one of his high-pitched, ingratiating laughing spells that landed him on the floor. Johnsontown’s faithful heckled the failed escapees.
“Shameful, disloyal creeps,” screamed Sister Erica, Benny’s own birth mother. “Throw them against the wall. I’ll shoot them myself.”
Despite the escalating tension, Scott didn’t flinch or utter a sound. He only glared at Dad.
“Throw them in the box,” various people shouted.
Dad’s legs jittered, as he arose and belched, farted, urinated and vomited behind his throne chair. As he slithered towards the boys, Brothers and Sisters offered nervous laughter.
“No, my children,” he said. “It’s always been my desire to keep my flock’s feet planted on the ground.”
Dad placed the microphone beneath Benny’s mouth.
“Look at the ground,” I instructed my daughter Sarah, who placed a pair of trembling mitts atop her elbow-length brown hair and wept. “Look at the ground.”
Brother Louie, Dad’s top enforcer, pounced on stage brandishing an electric drill. He displayed it before the audience and cranked it full blast. My adopted brothers Stan and John soon joined Louie, held Benny down and disposed a thick piece of grey duct tape across his mouth. Seconds later, a grinding sound permeated the pavilion, as the drill bit penetrated Benny’s flesh and bones, producing two large holes into which John inserted six inch long, shining nails. He hammered a leg iron into a patch of skin beneath Benny’s left ankle. Stan unsealed the tape from his lips at a measured speed.
Benny’s screams were loud enough to be heard in neighboring Venezuela.
Benny glanced downward and fainted after realizing he was wading in a pool of his own blood. Seated next to me was Sister Sylvia, who toppled from her chair and puked.
It was now Scott’s turn. Two full minutes passed. Although subjected to the same screwing and banging, he remained silent and scowled at Dad like a boxer might his opponent during the referee’s pre-bout instructions. Dad’s face grew more magenta than borscht, as he tossed the microphone in Scott’s face. He hadn’t yet come close to breaking the spirit of a kid he’d humiliated through numerous bare ass floggings at People’s Rallies and catharsis meetings, and his frustration was evident.
“Have you anything to say?” Dad asked.
Scott refused to speak or move, but eyed Dad like a ravished cat might a fat mouse. Dad loped off the stage and stormed out of sight.
As further punishment, Scott and Benny were sentenced to a multi-day stint on the dreaded learning crew, of which members were subjected to long hours clearing jungle forestation with cutlasses under equatorial sunlight, running throughout the complex at gunpoint, total isolation from their Comrades and being forbidden to speak, even to one another.
Scott still managed to smile after completing the first several torturous days of his two-week sentence, despite a foot infection that caused a pronounced limp. I, as the encampment’s Head Nurse, treated him.
“This’ll hurt,” I said, as I lanced the purple, puffy, pus-filled wound and rubbed it with alcohol.
“Didn’t feel a thing,” he joked, as he winced, bit down hard and jolted his head back. “Could you tell Sarah baseball practice’s tonight at six. With me out, she’s at second.”
When Scott spoke of her, his face would flush. He cracked his knuckles.
“Sure,” I said. “It’s okay. I know you like Sarah.”
“Do not,” he snapped back fast, trying to live up to the tough, ultra-macho role he enjoyed playing.
As Scott moved the afflicted foot, he grimaced.
“I want the two of you to hang out more,” I said.
“Really?” he asked, in a surprised tone.
The five foot ten inch, olive-skinned Latino with a knife scar under his left eye glimpsed upward and ran the fingers of both his hands through an afro thicker than the surrounding jungle.
“I want her to trust you,” I answered.
“Why?” he asked, in a much more panicked and inquisitive manner. “What for?”
I placed gauze over the incision site. Several communards entered. He leaned forward.
“Not now,” I whispered. “Soon. Okay?”
The atmosphere of paranoia was such that you feared for your life if someone eyed you for more than a few seconds. To complain or voice your feelings was forbidden. This tenuous environment aside, I believed Scott was an exception. He’d demonstrated his desire to escape and had neither any love for nor loyalty towards Dad. Now, it was on to the next step: formulating an escape plan.
After listening to Dad espouse his paranoia over the perceived rise of fascist movements in South America until well past one o’clock in the morning, I awoke late, donned my lone pair of jeans and the least tattered of a mere three shirts in the drawer, prior to a three-minute gallop from Dorm A-1 to Educational Tent Two. It was twenty-seven minutes passed eight, three minutes before class started.
“Sorry, Sister Martha,” I stammered, out of breath, while retaining the teacher’s assistant desk in the far left corner.
Sarah, Scott and the other students looked my way.
“Why’re you late Sister Agatha?” the pouting head instructor asked.
The grey-haired, wrinkled sixty-seven-year-old, whom Sarah said resembled a gargoyle, stared at me with sea green eyes that seemed so out of place on her.
“Overslept,” I said, while my knees buckled. “Please accept my apologies.”
“This time,” she said. “You know Dad likes us to be at least ten minutes early.”
I knew she’d inform Dad anyway. Though the adopted, lone daughter of the Reverend Jerry Johnson’s “Rainbow Family,” I obtained no special dispensations. By this point, everyone from the smallest child to the senile elderly could report you for something as trivial as desiring a second cup of water at mealtime. Martha, a follower of Dad’s since the Church first opened its doors in Indianapolis, sauntered to the front of the tent.
“Pop quiz,” she announced.
The kids groaned.
“Hope this week’s results are better,” she said. “Dad’s not happy with our progress.”
Scott went to work, but not on the quiz.
“Comrade Sarah,” Scott whispered.
She glimpsed back and smiled.
“What?” she mouthed.
“How ‘bout them Yanks?” he asked.
We didn’t get much “actual” news from the States, but because Dad was a baseball fan, we learned the results of the World Series.
“They rule, baby,” Scott, the proud, native of the South Bronx, gloated.
Scott gyrated in his chair like a dancer on Soul Train. Sarah, a die-hard Oakland A’s supporter, displayed both her middle fingers.
“Suck it,” she said, as her eyes widened and face brightened. “They needed Reggie and Catfish. A’s rejects.”
Scott eyed me. I offered the thumbs up sign. The playful exchange elicited laughter from everyone present, except for Martha, who whipped the top of her desk with a ruler.
“Young Comrades,” she said, as she squinted her eyes. “Socialism, not sports please.”
When class ended, I stopped Scott by the door.
“Drop by tomorrow morning,” I muttered, like a ventriloquist. “I want to check that ankle.”
That evening marked the fourth time over a two week stretch that Dad tested our loyalty.
“White night, white night,” Dad’s shrillness reverberated over the loud speakers at two hours past midnight.
I stumbled outside in my bathrobe and waited for Sarah and my two sons, Joey and Mark. Within three minutes, they’d all staggered to our usual gathering spot near the main radio room. With our eyes still ninety-nine percent shut, we ambled to the pavilion and occupied seats at a table in front of the stage, close to Dad’s perch. Mother adjusted the rag covering a head of hair that had transformed from blonde to grey in less than a year and handed him a microphone, which he dropped.
“Woo that’s strong brandy,” he babbled, as he picked it up. “I’m drunk.”
Our self-proclaimed God returned to his Heaven.
“A devil and some of his informants will visit us next week,” he said, as he removed a pair of dark sunglasses and ran his right hand through a slicked back head of raven hair.
Sister Marla, Dad’s number one mistress, pranced on stage carrying a tray filled with small cups.
“My children,” he said, as his tone grew more voluminous. His face was a ruby hue.
Dad pounced up and made wild hand movements.
“I’d rather die than watch an informant for the CIA invade our home, break up our families and destroy this movement,” he bellowed.
The assembled crowd leaped up in unison and roared. As soon as the cheers waned, Marla and Dad cavorted off the stage and dispensed the suspect potion at random. I exhaled hard when the last of the Dixie containers were doled out and I wasn’t holding one.
“Drink,” he ordered.
Unlike previous occasions, no one aired the slightest protest. Those with cups all downed the juice as if they were obedient freshmen drinking shots during fraternity rush week. We then sat in silence and waited. A few people sniffled.
“You’ve all got one hour to live,” Dad informed those unfortunate enough to have consumed the lime Flavor Aid.
“Oh my God,” Sister Kay screamed. “Oh my God.”
Sister Kay grabbed her two children and the trio zipped around the pavilion until caught, subdued and sedated.
“No poison tonight, my children,” he declared, after the hour had elapsed. “But that day draws nearer.”
I determined to become a hell of a lot more proactive. After returning home, I immediately authored a note to Scott entailing my plans. Scott entered the clinic at six past seven. Several patients were present.
“Go into examination area four,” I instructed.
He hobbled in that direction, separated the curtain and crawled on the table.
“How’s the ankle?” I asked, as I handed him a piece of paper. “I’ve given you written instructions on how to care for it. Take a few minutes to read them and I’ll be back to answer any questions. Understand?”
He lowered his head and scanned.
“Yeah,” he said, after a few a second or two.
He peeked up and viewed me. I nodded my head, moseyed off and conducted a quick inventory of the supply closet. A quarter-hour later, I returned and closed the curtain.
“Well?” I asked, in a whisper.
The street-genius, former member of The Reapers gang pretended to write with his left hand. I heeded the prompt, retrieved pencil and a marble top notebook off the countertop, scurried over and doled it out to him. He scribbled on a piece of paper and, a short time afterwards, detached a sheet, planted it in my right hand and pointed downward.
It said: “You’ll know when it’ll be for real and you want me to escape with Sarah, Joey and Mark.”
“Yep,” I spoke fast, while depositing a small pill holder filled with antibiotics into his left palm. “That’s for you only.”
Scott pocketed the penicillin. I ripped open the curtain’s partition.
“I’m serious,” I said, trying to keep up the ruse by pointing to the bottle. “It’s very dangerous to share this with anyone else. Use it carefully and you won’t get in any trouble.”
Every roll had come up sevens thus far. Less than twenty-four hours later, however, I was rattled by a loud thud that echoed through the clinic, followed by shouting.
“Relax, Sister Mary,” I said, as she jerked forward and shivered.
I gripped her hand, despite the fact mine jiggled like jello.
“Stay here,” I said.
As I rushed into the entranceway, Louie hurled Scott to the floor and spat in his face.
“Here ya go, motherfucker,” he yowled.
“What’d he do?” I asked, as Scott positioned a bruised right wrist over his blackened left eye.
Louie kicked Scott in the stomach.
“This vile filth was all over your daughter,” Louie said, as he swung his leg back and attempted to strike him again. “Making out in the playground.”
I stomped Scott in front of Louie.
“I’ll handle this,” I screeched.
Louie hovered over Scott and glared.
“Go ahead,” Louie said, as he tromped out.
I helped Scott up.
“Ouch,” he said, when I lifted his shirt.
“Sorry,” I uttered. “It was the only way to get rid of him.”
Welts were strewn across his neck and back.
“Couldn’t stay out of trouble,” I said, in another whisper, but with strong anger.
“Dad won’t let me go near Sarah,” he said, as I leaned back. “If I do, I’ll end up in the SCU. Supposed to go there for re-education when I’m done here.”
Terrible news on all fronts.
“Fuck,” I muttered. “This was gonna be hard enough. You just made it near impossible. Damn it.”
“Didn’t mean to,” he whimpered, while he lowered his head and yelped, as I applied alcohol to his numerous wounds.
The Special Care Unit was on the other side of the infirmary. I’d worked there for several months, but vowed never to return once I begged for and was granted a transfer out.
“I’ll take you,” I said.
A feeling of intense nausea set in the moment I mentioned those words.
“Don’t have to,” he said. “Dad didn’t say so.”
I clutched his right hand.
“Please,” I said, as my voice cracked. “Trust me.”
The entrance was guarded and black blinds adorned the facility’s few windows.
“Why’re you here?” asked Brother Paul, another of Dad’s security officers, who glowered as we approached.
“Dad told me to bring Scott,” I answered, as I felt a bit of stomach acid rise through my throat.
As we stepped inside, I had extreme chest pains and difficulty breathing. While pressing deeper into the dim-lit space, I grew so lightheaded that I needed to grip a countertop to prevent myself from toppling over. The facility contained three examination tables and four open cubicles with beds covered by persons slumbering on their stomachs. Two of the tables were taken by men, who sat up, drooled and goggled the floor.
Sister Carol, the SCU’s Supervising Nurse and another of Dad’s mistresses, strutted in, prepared a syringe and sauntered towards the table nearest the door, which eighty-seven-year-old Sister Rae, or “Grannie R,” as she was affectionately referred by our commune’s children, occupied. While the six-foot, large bosomed, brunette closed in, Rae rocked back and forth, causing the table’s legs to teeter.
“What’re you doing?” Scott asked.
“Shut up,” she yelled. “Get your ass over here and help me hold her down.”
Scott hesitated and observed me.
“Now,” Carol screamed.
Scott bolted over. His hands shuddered, marking the first time I’d seen him display any type of nervous reaction.
“Put your hands on her shoulders,” Carol instructed.
Rae flailed her arms and swung her legs. The two men on the other tables didn’t flinch.
“Sorry,” Scott whispered to Rae, as a single tear skied down his left cheek.
When Scott cried, I shed a couple tears as well.
“Please,” Rae begged. “Don’t. Please.”
“This’ll help you become less hostile,” Carol said, as she plunged the sedative into Rae’s right forearm.
Rae was slumped over before Carol launched the needle into a trash receptacle. Scott fixated on Rae’s limp body. I excused myself, trotted outside and dry heaved.
“Lay her down,” Carol demanded of Scott, as I re-entered.
While I tilted Rae’s head backwards, Scott raised her legs. Carol sneered at me and then smirked at Scott.
“Want to be up here next time?” Carol asked Scott.
“No, Comrade Carol,” he said, as his pupils expanded.
“Get out,” she roared.
As Scott jetted out, he created a breeze and came close to bowling me over. I feared Carol’s display had scared Scott into submission and eighty-sixed all hope, but had little time to contemplate, much less formulate any Plan B. Seconds after reassuming my post in the medical clinic, Sister Tonya, wife of Les, the third of my adopted brothers, barged in. Her light brown hair sopped and her skin dripped in perspiration.
“Les needs to see you right now,” she said, as she panted.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “He sick?”
“Didn’t say,” she answered, still wheezing between words. “Just go quick.”
I scampered out and veered right towards the cottages. Upon reaching Number Twenty-Seven, I noticed the door was closed. I knocked. Not more than a second later, Les answered, dragged me inside by my right arm and idled down on a bottom bunk. He had color and wasn’t sweating, in spite of plus ninety degree temperatures and one hundred percent humidity.
“Anyone in here?” he asked, as he perused the living space.
Silence followed. He brushed a patch of his black hair off his right eye.
“Great,” he said. “Let’s chat.”
The six foot two inch, chiseled bodybuilder hoisted a rifle, swerved his head both ways and positioned the weapon he employed as Vice-Captain of our feared Red Brigade Defense Force, by the door. After chugging water from a canteen, he slammed the partition shut.
“That’s how I get privacy around here,” he chuckled.
Without hesitation, I set my rear on a wobbling, wooden desk chair. He advanced and rubbed my right shoulder with his left hand. I attempted to slink away, but was unsuccessful.
“Oh sis,” he said.
He smacked his lips together. Feeling my legs twitch, I snaked my frame upward. Just as I stood erect, he gestured downward and, within a second, my south end again settled onto a seat that was harder than the mattresses in my dorm. Les wagged his left pinky back and forth.
“You’ve been mischievous,” he announced.
“What do you mean?” I asked, feeling my arterial pulses bound from scalp to the soles of my worn Nikes.
He strolled to a desk and picked up a photo of his daughter, Cherokee.
“Getting cozy with hostiles,” he said. “Hearing bad reports.”
At that moment, I feared I’d soon be deader than any potential plan to flee.
“I teach and treat him,” I said, as I grasped the chair’s arms and anchored my feet behind its legs to conceal my quivering extremities. “That’s it.”
He charged forward, snared a step stool and deposited his rear. I shifted several inches to the left.
“Try again,” he said, as he rocketed up again. “Dad doesn’t know. Yet anyway.”
Though relieved to hear the latter half of his statement, Les did his job.
“Okay,” I responded, in a blubbering state. “I want him to get my kids out. It’s coming. You know that.”
“That’s all I needed to know,” he declared.
Water accumulated in his eyes. Out of nowhere, Les embraced me.
“Can you add “Little C” to any plans?” he asked.
I leered for several seconds.
“Yeah right,” I exclaimed. “Bullshit. You’re just playing Dad’s little spy.”
I gripped his shoulders and thrust him back. In the weeks leading up to our confrontation, Dad had dispatched random people to ask residents questions like, ‘Are you happy here?’ and ‘Do you wish to return to the States?’ Those who fell for the deception were beaten and ostracized. A few were sent to the SCU.
“I mean it,” he responded. “On my life.”
I glared, but didn’t move.
“May very well be if you’re fucking with me,” I snapped.
I went from shaking and crying to standing erect with both a clenched jaw and fists. A few seconds later, someone banged on the hatch. We dispersed fast.
The next day was Wednesday, two days prior to the arrival of California Congressman Luke Raymond. Scott and I bumped into each other as we entered the classroom. He glimpsed up and, when our eyes met, flew towards his desk. During class, the oft chatty and boisterous young man once voted Class Clown by his junior high school mates, sat in back with his head down and stayed silent.
“Wonderful,” I thought to myself. “Now I’m truly fucked.”
That afternoon, I received a note which read, ‘Meeting with Dad in office at six.’ I envisioned the agenda for this meeting would be my “sentencing.” I trembled to such extremes, I had to crawl the last several yards to the small wooden structure a few hundred yards from the pavilion. For sure, I’d end up drugged in the SCU or be placed in the dark, stifling isolation box housed several feet below the earth. Best case scenario would be a public berating and beating in front of our entire thousand person community. I arrived at a quarter to. Dad, Mother, John, Louie, Stan and Les were already there.
“N.. N.. now that ev.. everyone’s here,” stammered Dad. “Let’s begin.”
I sat on a folding chair near the back wall and laid my quaking hands beneath my buttocks.
“Sss.. some of you know the plan,” Dad slurred on.
The stench of liquor on Dad’s breath could have floored a charging leopard. As he leaned in and leered at me, he popped another capsule of God only knew what at that point.
“But for those who don’t,” he continued. “Remember, everyone’s to be watched and any act of treason is to be severely punished.”
It became apparent Les hadn’t yet reported me. Had he, I wouldn’t have made it out intact. The clock struck seven-thirty before Dad stopped railing on capitalism, the United States and his Secretary, Sister Anna for failing to provide him with a cold can of Pepsi. As I left, Les watched me and smirked.
Upon returning to my bunk, I found another written message pinned to the bedpost explaining Martha was ill and I’d been instructed to take over her class. This was one more clog in the drain. Between this new assignment and my regular duties in the clinic, I wondered when I’d find the time to formulate a reasonable exit strategy.
Not having a spare moment to throw together any lessons, I decided to test students on the world news, as interpreted by Dad during a People’s Rally held later that evening. On Thursday morning, students filed in as eight-thirty drew nearer and studied me, while I lumbered to the middle of the tent.
“Comrade Martha’s sick,” I announced. “I’ll be teaching her class for a bit. Quiz on last night’s news. You’ve ten minutes to review your notes.”
“Bullshit,” said a girl, in a dull tone.
I spun around.
“Who said that?” I asked.
Sarah rose. I needed to wipe my eyes several times.
“Sit down,” I shouted.
“Sorry Mom,” she said. “Or is it Sister or Comrade Agatha now?”
“Be quiet and take your seat,” my voice now boomed.
Sarah stomped towards me and pointed.
“I won’t be quiet,” she shrieked. “Hate this creepy place. Want to go home.”
I locked my jaw, hissed like butter sizzling in a frying pan and launched a piece of chalk across the room.
“Damn it,” I yelled. “Shut up right now.”
Sarah stormed towards her desk, jacked her books, casted a chair backwards and blitzkrieged out of sight. Her classmates remained mum and fixated on their desktops. I sunk down, but could exhale and no longer had the urge to tremble.
“Good girl,” I whispered to myself. “Knew you were bright.”
Some of Sarah’s peers were the most devoted and militant members of our cult. Until that moment, I had no idea where Sarah stood.
After a minute, I staggered up and slogged inside. The students hadn’t moved a centimeter and refused to offer the slightest peek upward. I transcribed the questions onto a chipped, green chalkboard.
“Half hour,” I said, as my fading Indiana-accent broke up. “Begin.”
The clock’s large hand crept slower than an arthritic tortoise during those thirty minutes. Once again, I had to press my hands together to hide the tremors. A brown-haired girl strode by the big top’s half-open entrance. I propelled myself forward and staggered out.
“Sarah,” I yelled.
It wasn’t her. Sudden shouting could be heard in the distance. I stumbled in again.
“You okay?” asked sixteen-year-old Comrade Truman.
The light-skinned, African-American observed the scene.
“Nope,” I said, while squinting at the clock.
Both my head and legs made violent, involuntary twitching motions, as if I was experiencing a Grand Mal seizure. The next time I glimpsed up, the hour-hand had sojourned to the nine.
“Pencils down,” I said. “Bring me your tests. Class’s then dismissed.”
The expressionless pupils formed a single-file line, positioned their exams on the desk’s right corner, whirled around and left. The last to complete the ritual was Scott, who stood by the door and pointed downward. I shrugged my shoulders and threw my hands out, hoping to convey I had no idea what he attempted to suggest.
“My paper,” he murmured.
I reached into my case and sifted through the quizzes until locating his. In its lower left margin, a brief note read:
“Still plan to do it? If so, I’m in.”
I gaped at him and motioned my head up and down. He smiled and burst out.
At ten after six the next morn, I hit the food tent and thought the scrambled eggs, bacon strips and home fries, instead of the standard rice and gravy slop we’d forced down our throats for the past eight months, was a hunger hallucination. Then I remembered the date was Friday, November 17, 1978 and Raymond would be, after months of speculation, visiting the wannabe Promised Land.
Laborers were given time off, dorms shined with new coats of fresh paint, latrines were spotless, the box was empty, SCU patients were returned to their bunks, I didn’t hear any screaming coming from the cottages or witness anyone on their hands and knees sobbing, “The Johnsontown Express” was rehearsing well-known Top 40 songs I’d often hear when listening to a radio wasn’t punishable with thirty-nine strikes from the Cat-O-Nine-Tails. For a brief while, our agricultural project felt like the tropical Utopia Dad advertised it to be.
A short time after arriving at work, I noticed Scott was absent.
“Can you take over for a few?” I asked Sister Jenn, the new Teaching Assistant. “Need to take care of something.”
After rambling across the encampment for almost forty-five minutes, I spotted Les in the pavilion. When our eyes met, he vaulted off a bench and bolted.
“Stop,” I ordered, as my hands and voice quivered. “Where’d they put him? What’ve you done?”
Les ignored my questions and amped his pace. Channeling my inner Bruce Jenner, I tracked him down near the playground and lunged for his neck. Several Brothers and Sisters pored over us. Les tugged on my left arm.
“Follow me,” he snipped, as he scowled and pointed to his right.
We traversed several hundred yards to a more secluded area between a generator and well.
“He’s in confinement,” Les said.
After I kicked a patch of earth, a cloud of dirt flew into his face.
“Why?” I asked, while I tugged on my hair with enough strength to pluck out several strands. “Where?”
I walloped his left shoulder.
“Special lock boxes behind East House,” he winced. “Dad decided to keep hostiles out of sight. It’s only til Raymond goes.”
“That may be too late,” I cried out. “Or did you forget? I knew you were fucking with me.”
I stomped to my left.
“Where’re you going?” he shouted.
“To get him,” I said.
“Calm down and don’t be stupid,” he snarled. “Want to get killed? You’ll just have to trust me.”
“You?” I asked. “Kidding, right?”
He clutched my shoulders and rocked me back and forth several times.
“If I was, you’d be drowning in Thorazine right about now,” he responded.
I dug my fingernails into his shoulders, leaving bloody marks.
“Tell me,” I said, as I thrust him backwards a number of feet. “What’s the plan for those who want to leave?”
Les offered his left middle finger and clumped off.
Raymond, a bevy of American journalists and a few ex-communards, who were part of an organization known as “The Concerned Families,” descended upon us at dusk. This group was comprised of many who had defected from the Church and accompanied the elected official to Guyana in an attempt to convince their relatives to return to America with them.
Late that night, I spotted Sister Carla, a close friend and yet one more of Dad’s mistresses, sitting on one of the playground’s swings with her head drooped over like a dying rose. When I drew nearer, I noticed her eyes were red.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, as I dropped my butt into the swing next to her.
She inched her head leftward. Her tears morphed into sobs.
“Rumor’s about twenty people are going with him,” she bawled. “This’s it, Aggie. It’s done. At this time tomorrow, we’ll be gone.”
After eleven the following morning, Raymond’s entourage returned. Sisters and Brothers found refuge wherever possible, even in latrines, to avoid contact with the persistent corps of journalists who exposed Dad as the fraud he was and our commune for a sham. The biggest shock came about one o’clock. My children and I were in the playground.
“Comrade Martha,” Sarah hollered, as she hopped down from a seesaw and chased her. “Comrade Martha,” she repeated, while Mark, Joey and I trailed.
Martha halted. Her clothes were soaked in sweat and she had bloody scratches on her arms and face.
“My God,” I shouted. “What happened?”
“I was given a painful send off,” she answered.
Martha lowered her head.
“Where’re you going?” Sarah asked.
Martha’s ashen face lost what little coloring it had.
“With the Congressman, dear,” she sniffled. “We’re leaving soon.”
Sarah’s eyes welled up. So did mine. Martha was among fifteen signature members of the People’s Church desiring to leave with Raymond. There was no longer any doubt that Carla was correct. The People’s Church was now in its final hours.
“Why?” Sarah asked.
Martha gazed at Sarah. I pushed the kids back and embraced Martha, who yanked my neck down towards her.
“Aggie,” she whispered. “Please try and get yourselves out of here.”
She pecked my right cheek and scampered off.
“Let’s go to the garden,” I said.
Sarah stomped her foot and positioned her hands on her hips.
“Why’s everybody leaving?” she asked, as her voice fractured.
Sarah fixated on the pavilion. I neither answered nor argued. Sarah was too smart and I didn’t have the strength to figure out how to pretend anymore. By now, hundreds wandered in and out of the open air facility. Those with luggage were being escorted to our transportation truck accompanied by jeers and hisses. I considered sending Sarah, Joey and Mark with Raymond, but held back, fearing the severe reprisals I knew Dad would order upon learning one his children betrayed him.
“Traitors,” communards shouted in unison, as they spat upon and chucked animal feces at those who had the audacity to want to escape tyranny and return to their families.
Eardrum shattering wails then emanated from an area of the pavilion blocked from our sight.
“Kids,” I hollered. “We’re going to the clinic.”
“But,” Sarah interjected.
“Now,” I yelled, as I snared their hands and ferried them away.
The building was unlocked, but empty. This move ensured their safety and bought me precious time.
“Each of you get into an examination area,” I ordered.
They did as instructed.
“Close the curtain,” I shouted, in my most tremulous state yet. “Have to go out for a little while. None of you move until I get back and don’t make a sound. Understood?”
“Yes,” answered Sarah.
“Okay,” said Joey.
“Mark,” I yelled.
“Yeah,” he said, after a few seconds.
I went outside and scoured the entire compound for more than an hour. Since I didn’t trust Les, freeing Scott gave the kids the best chance. It was my intention to slip past the commotion, sneak out towards East House and liberate him. However, a shade past three, the loud speakers screamed.
“Come to the pavilion, my children,” Dad ordered. ‘Let’s meet for one final moment together.”
I hastened back to the clinic. When thinking the kids might have listened to Dad, I wanted to vomit.
“Please,” I mumbled, as I surrendered to my knees and into prayer position.
“Guys,” I screamed.
“We’re all still here,” Sarah hollered.
I pounced up and exhaled with such force, I knocked a paper cup off the countertop.
“Don’t listen to Dad,” I instructed. “It’s another loyalty test. Be back soon.”
After staggering back out, I bumped into Truman.
“Seen Scott or Les?” I asked him.
He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
“Well?” he asked, as he threw out his arms. “Think it’s for real this time?”
I corralled and hugged him. We then cried for a full two minutes. During our embrace, I witnessed Les waddling in the distance glancing up, down, backwards and forwards. Cherokee was in his arms.
“He didn’t lie,” I exulted, as I gaped at him. “Thank you, God.”
More than nine-hundred communards moped towards the pavilion in under eight minutes. The Red Brigade sealed off the perimeter armed with assault rifles and crossbows. Les spotted me. I waved with both hands, stumbled to my feet and tiptoed towards the clinic. He reached the door and handed me Cherokee.
“Off to get your boy,” he said. “Get in and stay there. If they see you, there’s nothing I can do.”
“If we can’t live in peace, then let’s die in peace,” Dad’s voice boomed over the loud speakers.
Sarah popped her head out.
“Is it over yet?” she asked.
“Not quite,” I answered, as my body again quaked to almost seizure stage. “It will be soon. Back inside. Go on.”
Fifteen minutes elapsed. I scuttled to the front and watched Les push Scott with his rifle. Though Scott had two swollen eyes and bruises covering his arms, I was relieved to see his limp had dissipated.
“Get moving, hostile,” he shouted, as they stepped inside.
He drove Scott to the grime-laden, cold, black tiling.
“What’re you doing?” I asked.
He lifted his weapon and aimed it at me.
“Shut up,” he ordered.
I glared. Cherokee screamed.
“You bastard,” I shouted.
“Shut up,” Les instructed, as the rifle came within inches of my face.
Les lurched over and bulldozed me to the floor. Sarah tried to calm Cherokee by gently rocking her back and forth, but her wailing only increased. Joey and Mark cowered by my legs. Les pranced to the door.
“Everybody up,” he said. “Be back in a minute and then we head to the pavilion.”
My body trembled to the point I needed the assistance of all three of my kids and Scott to stand. My mind raced faster than my pulse. I needed a plan and quick. Scott gave me a gentle push away from Sarah the boys.
“What do we do now?” he asked.
My heart slowed a bit, but I was thankful my brain didn’t.
“As he’s leading us out, fake an injury,” I said, as I thrust open a drawer and yanked out a small bottle of Thorazine. “Pretend your ankle’s giving out or something.”
“What do you mean?” Scott asked, as he threw out his hands.
“Just do what I said,” I snapped back.
I rummaged through another drawer and let out a huge burst of air upon locating a syringe. Clomping footsteps could be heard and were growing louder.
“He’s coming back,” Sarah warned, as she rushed over and tugged on my arm.
I loaded eight hundred milligrams of the sedative into the needle and set it down on a countertop. Les barged through the door.
“The best testimony we can make is to leave this God damn world,” Dad proclaimed, to more thunderous applause from the brainwashed zombies in the pavilion.
“Let’s go,” Les ordered.
I eyed Scott. Les snatched Scott’s right arm and hurled him towards the door. Scott fell to one knee. Sarah and the boys bumped into Scott and everyone came to a halt.
“Ouch,” Scott shouted. “Shit.”
“Get up,” Les screamed.
“Can’t,” he said. “My ankle gave out or something.”
Despite the seriousness of the moment, I giggled. Scott bobbed his head and shot me ‘a stop fucking around and take care of business’ glare.
“You’ll have to help me up,” Scott told Les.
“Okay,” Les responded, as he yanked Scott to his feet.
Without any further hesitation, I snared the syringe, darted towards Les and plunged the drug into his back. Mark’s entire body shuddered and a sudden wetness accumulated in the midsection of Joey’s pants. Les tumbled to the ground in seconds. Cherokee’s cries amplified to a glass shattering pitch. We all studied each other for several seconds. I snapped my finger and gestured at Scott.
“Help me put him in the storage closet,” I said.
Scott grabbed Les’s legs. I seized his arms. We lifted him up and lugged his almost two-hundred pound frame into the sideboard that contained bed linens and a host of drugs. I shut and locked the door. Cherokee’s yowls wouldn’t cease.
“We’ve got to quiet her down,” Scott said.
He was right. I hated to, but knew it was necessary.
“Sarah,” I said. “Bring her to me.”
I slid the syringe out of my pocket and administered my niece the little that remained of the calming agent.
“It’s not gonna kill her, is it?” Sarah wondered.
“No,” I replied. “Just put her to sleep.”
Soon, Cherokee was quiet. Sarah took Cherokee and retired to a corner of the clinic near the door and stroked the infant’s brown hair. The boys joined Sarah. A brief moment of silence was interrupted by Dad.
“Gather in, folks,” he instructed. “It’s easy. It’s easy.”
Scott and I observed each other, both of us knowing Dad’s grand plan had commenced. Minutes later, children’s cries could be heard. I plodded to a window. Many Comrades volunteered the lives of their children, but some struggled. One woman fought off five people, led by Mother, as they attempted to pry her baby away from her.
“Mother, Mother, please don’t do this,” Dad babbled on, as Marla forced a cup of what I’d later learn was grape flavored Kool-Aid laced with cyanide down both the woman’s and her child’s throat. “Don’t do this.”
I was so zoned in, I failed to notice Sarah had snuck up beside me.
“Back up,” I said.
She retreated a few steps and stared.
“This’s no loyalty test,” she declared. “Is it?”
I lowered and shook my head. I’d lied to her for years about who and what our “Church” was and knew Sarah had figured out the horrible truth for herself. I embraced her with what little strength I had left. Scott jerked his frame away from the window.
“Got trouble,” he said.
I hurried towards the window. Paul, the SCU security guard, stormed towards the clinic’s steps.
“Now what?” Scott asked, as he threw out his arms.
“Uh, uh…,” I stumbled. “Everyone to the closet.”
We all raced in that direction. I fumbled with the key and opened the door just as Paul made his way in. I positioned my finger over my mouth and gestured to my left. Scott led Sarah, who held a slumbering Cherokee, the boys and finally me into what was now an area so cramped we couldn’t avoid bumping into one another.
“Les,” Paul shouted. “You in here?”
I pulled Mark close, but could not control his shivering. Mark broke my clutches and knocked a bottle off a shelf, which shattered upon impact with the ground.
“What the fuck’s that?” Paul screamed. “Who’s in there?”
He slammed on the closet’s door. None of us uttered a sound. All our eyes fixated on the knob as it slowly rotated. About five seconds hence, Paul stood before us pointing his rifle in our direction. We minced into the clinic’s main area. Paul leaned over, poked and prodded Les, who remained motionless.
“Forget about it,” I told Paul. “I gave him enough Thorazine to put a tiger to bed.”
Paul pounced up and glowered. For sure, we were cooked. I had no idea how to wiggle out of this mess.
“Cowards,” he said, as he motioned us out. “I should shoot all of you myself.’
I clutched the hands of Joey and Mark. Out of nowhere, Scott attacked Paul and placed him in a headlock. Paul fought to free himself. Sarah and the boys rubbernecked like they were viewing a ten car pileup on the Golden Gate Freeway. Paul gained momentum. I didn’t have time to hunt for any more tranquilizers, so I grabbed a brick off the floor, raced towards them and clocked Paul on the head, which rendered him unconscious. Scott and I deposited Paul into the closet, locked the door and dumped the key into a trash receptacle. Scott reminded me the victory was short lived.
“Can’t hide in here forever,” he said. “Gotta move.”
The screams from the pavilion had ebbed. I shuffled to the window. Person after person dropped to the ground, almost as if they were being gunned down by an expert sniper perched in a nearby palm tree. Sarah tugged on her hair.
“They’re all dying,” Sarah said, crying hysterically.
Scott caressed her shoulders. As awful as it was to think, the fewer people left, the greater our chance for success. It was time.
“We’re leaving now,” I said, in an authoritative tone, as I stomped to the center of the clinic.
Scott lifted Sarah up. The boys shuddered behind Scott.
“How we doing this?” Scott asked.
“We just go,” I replied.
Scott nodded. I inched open the clinic’s door and glanced to my left and right several times, like I was stopped at a tricky intersection. When I deemed it clear and safe, I stepped out. Scott and the children trailed. As we proceeded past the pavilion, hundreds of bodies laid before us. Many were dead. Those that weren’t writhed in agony, as they foamed at the mouth and convulsed. The putrid aroma of burnt almonds permeated the air.
“Okay,” I said. “Try not to look. Just run.”
I pulled Joey and Mark forward. They bolted off. Sarah followed with Cherokee, who was still asleep and completely unaware she was on the verge of escaping the sight of what would go down as the worst deliberate loss of American lives until the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Scott shielded the children as he bolted away. I never thought I’d survive long enough to include myself in any escape attempt, but couldn’t stop to think about it. I glimpsed back and dashed towards the jungle. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sister Marla, who spotted me and alerted Brother Stewart, another member of the Red Brigade. Scott and the kids neared the brush. I glanced over my shoulder again and witnessed Stewart in pursuit with a rifle. I amped my pace.
“Stop,” I heard his voice bellow.
Two gunshots followed. The next thing I knew, my legs went numb. My back felt warm and moist.
“Mom,” Sarah screamed.
My trembling hands were covered in blood. I tried to stand, but couldn’t.
“Go,” was all I could say.
The last images I remembered were Sarah crying, followed by Scott lifting her up over his shoulders to continue their sojourn to freedom. I was thrilled Joey and Mark hadn’t stopped and didn’t see what I thought would be their mother’s last moments on earth. As they disappeared, a brief moment of serenity overcame me. However, seconds later, Stewart closed in. I rolled around the ground like I was on fire and edged towards the jungle. Though growing weaker and weaker, I forced myself to move until I slid down an embankment. If I was to die, I’d rather be sacrificed to a hungry leopard or puma.
“Thanks, God,” I whispered to myself, knowing the kids had escaped.
I shut my eyes, expecting never to open them again.
“Thank you, God,” I whispered.
The mission was still a success. At least my children would survive.
“You alive?” shouted a man with a bass, but elegant English accent. “You alive?”
An object was jammed into my right side. I inched open my eyes. It was lights out. The blur cleared. Three black soldiers hovered over me with automatic weapons drawn. When I attempted to stand, an excruciating pain in my back brought about an intense bout of nausea.
“Can you move?” one of the soldiers asked.
“Not really,” I whimpered.
The soldier snapped his finger. Within seconds, a team of medics appeared and loaded me onto a stretcher. I faded out again. When I awoke, it was in a hospital room. I was dying of thirst. Though still weak and sore, I was just able to reach a pitcher of water on an adjacent table. I downed a full glass in one huge gulp. Several minutes later, a young, white man with a stethoscope around his neck entered.
“Good morning, Agatha,” he said. “Feeling better today? Sure are looking better.”
My heart raced. Queasiness set in. A cold sweat accumulated on my forehead.
“How’d you know my name?” I asked, with a strong hint of fear and wonderment.
“Relax, I’m Dr. Stephens. I put you back together. You’ve been in here for three days now.”
I propped myself up as far as I could.
“Back together?” I inquired.
Stephens glanced at a chart and placed it a few feet from the water pitcher.
“Yep,” he replied. “Had a nasty bullet wound in your lower back. Lucky though. Missed your spine and all major blood vessels. Did lose a fair amount of blood and have been out since your operation. Nice to finally meet.”
“How do you do, doctor,” I said, with a bit of sarcasm. “Thanks for your efforts. Still haven’t answered my question though. How do you know my name?”
“A very brave boy named Scott told us.” The once quiet, steady beat being tracked by the heart monitor became fast and jumpy upon hearing Scott’s name mentioned.
“Is he okay?” I stammered. “How ’bout my children and Cherokee? They make it?”
My breathing grew labored.
“Settle down,” Stephens instructed. “They’re all fine. As a matter of fact, they’re all here, healthy and dying to see you. I wanted to wait ’til you got your strength back.”
I leaned out of bed, ripped the line out of my left arm and placed a foot on the floor.
“I’ve got to see them,” I yelled. “Right now.”
Stephens stepped forward and gently nudged me back into bed.
“Calm down,” he said. “I’ll bring them to you.”
When he disappeared, I bawled.
“I love you, God,” I said. “You’re the real God.”
“Mom,” I could hear Sarah bellow, from down the hall. “Mom.”
Sarah flew through the door. Mark and Joey trailed her. All three threw their arms around me and we shared a suffocating embrace. None of us spoke. However, words weren’t necessary. When the kids jumped down, I glanced up and saw Scott standing in the doorway. He eyed me. I placed my hands out and inched them forward like a crossing guard directing a bus. Sarah, Mark and Joey backed away, as if they understood that Scott and I needed to share this special moment. Soon, Scott was in my arms. I gripped him tighter than I did my children.
“Thank you,” I cried. “There’re no words. Thanks so much.”
The next time we faced other, a single tear streaked down his face.
“No problem,” he said, still macho as ever.
Stephens appeared again.
“Okay everyone,” he said. “Mom needs rest.”
Scott led Sarah, Mark and Joey out. Despite my elation, I wanted to know the full truth.
“What else happened, doc?” I inquired.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You know what I’m asking,” I replied, with a bit of curtness.
Stephens leaned over, placed his hand on my head and exhaled with force.
“A lot,” he answered. “Sure you want to hear all this now?”
I nodded. “The people I most care about made it,” I said.
Stephens pulled up a chair and plopped down. “Where do I start?” he asked. He again sighed and removed a pair of glasses.
“With everything you know,” I said.
“Okay,” he began. “More than nine hundred are dead.”
I began to weep.
“Hundreds were children,” he continued. Stephens pounced up. His face turned red. “How could he do that?” he asked. “Why couldn’t the rest of those parents been like you? I just don’t understand how they could follow this shit.” He returned to his seat, dropped his face in his hands and sobbed. “I’m sorry,” he said.
I had a feeling I’d be subject to this response from people for the rest of my life. The truth was, I wish I had an answer to his question and could quell his rage, but I couldn’t. Stephens arose and shuffled towards the door.
“Doc,” I said.
He halted and veered around. “Yeah?” he said.
My heart thwacked again.
“Do I need to be worried about anything other than my health?” I asked, half-fearing the answer, but needing and wanting to know.
“Absolutely not,” he responded. “Scott explained everything to both the Guyanese and American authorities.”
The beeping of the heart monitor lessened. Stephens stepped back into the room.
“However,” Stephens continued.
“Oh God,” I muttered.
“Sooner or later, you’re gonna have to speak with a Major Harris,” Stephens rattled on. “He’s the lead American investigator.”
I sat up.
“Could you give me another glass of water?” I asked.
Stephens complied. I belted half the contents down.
“Among the few survivors were a Les and Paul found out cold in the clinic after the suicides,” he said.
I clenched my jaw and made fists with both hands. The heart monitor got busy again. I’d saved their rotten skins.
“Every single survivor said they were part of it,” Stephens said. “However, those two claimed to know you well and, after finding out you survived, said you’d be able to clear things up. Whatever that meant.”
“Did they?” I said, with disgust and anger. “I’ll speak with Harris.”
“I suggest you wait a few more days,” Stephens pleaded. “By then, you should be strong enough to venture out for a while.”
“Good,” I said, as I yawned and shut my eyes.
The next few days were spent getting my wounds cleaned, bandages changed and spending time with Scott and the kids. By Friday, I could stand for more than a few minutes and could do without a wheelchair. I threw on a pair of tattered dungarees and flannel shirt around noon. Stephens entered the room.
“You sure?” he asked.
“It’s time,” I answered.
Stephens led me to the hospital’s entrance where I was met by two young men in fatigues.
“Hello, Ms. Johnson,” said a solider with the name Marks emblazoned on his jacket pocket. “It’ll be a short ride. Let us know if you need anything.”
I nodded. Marks and his cohort named Davis escorted me into the back of a military jeep. In less than ten minutes, we disembarked at a command post the United States Army had set up a mile or two from the crime scene. As I was led into a tent, a truck pulled up. One of the soldiers opened the vehicle’s back door and, when I saw countless wooden caskets inside, I cried.
“Ms. Johnson,” someone shouted.
I whirled around and watched a tall man, with brown-grey hair and a mustache approach. He placed his hand out.
“Major Edward Harris,” he said, as I took it.
Harris brought me into a makeshift office with curtains acting as doors. Hundreds of papers were strewn across his desk. He yanked out a flask and took a healthy sip of whatever was inside it.
“I apologize for my unprofessional behavior,” he said. “As you can imagine, it’s been a long week.”
“For some more than others,” I said.
He occupied a wooden chair behind the desk.
“Of course,” he replied. “Please forgive me.”
“Just want to let you know Ms. Johnson,” he began. “You’ve been cleared of any involvement.”
“So I’ve been told,” I responded.
After being in a comfortable, air-conditioned hospital, the Guyanese heat set in again. Harris cracked up an electric fan, but that did little to cool me. I didn’t need any reminders of Johnsontown, but the heat couldn’t be quelled. Harris rose. His underarms were soaked in perspiration.
“Tell me about Les Johnson and Paul Anderson,” he said. “Those whom we’ve spoken to say they helped perpetrate Dad’s grand plan. They deny it, of course. I know this’s tough, but unfortunately, being a relative of both Jerry and Les Johnson, you’re the link. What can you tell us?”
“Everything,” I replied.
I had no feelings about Paul and lost what smattering of affinity for Les when he lied, betrayed and volunteered his daughter, sister, niece, nephews and Scott to Dad’s sadistic endeavor. I’d hoped the more honest I was, the more they’d suffer.
“As you can imagine,” Harris rattled on. “The outcry in the States is off the charts about this. The people want the heads of any surviving perpetrators.”
So did I.
“Not to mention,” Harris continued. “The government has given us full authority to act swiftly and harshly, if you get my meaning.”
I sure did and applauded them for it.
“They were two of Dad’s most loyal sidekicks,” I said. “Anything Dad wanted, they did. Torture, beating, you name it. Les was a double-crossing bastard who prepared to kill all of us, even his own infant daughter. Do with them what you must. No punishment’s too stiff in my opinion.”
“Okay,” Harris said. “Just so you know, you’re incriminating your brother.”
“Yes,” I said. “And I’ve got no problems doing so.”
“We’d like you to ID them first,” he said. “Just to be sure.”
“I understand,” I said. “Let’s get it over with.”
I trailed Harris out. He led me to another tent where Les and Paul were detained.
“Do you need a minute?” Harris asked.
“No,” I replied. “But, I would like to face them.”
Harris retreated and stood by the entrance. I glared at Les and, as I neared his cell, he stood up and smiled. Paul sat on the edge of a cot with his head down.
“Aggie,” Les said. “So good to see you.”
“Fuck you,” I retorted. “The only comfort I want you to take’s in knowing I’ll care for Cherokee.”
I turned around and lumbered towards the exit. Les dropped to his knees.
“Aggie, please,” he begged. “Aggie, we’ve got to talk. You can’t do this to me. Dad made me. Dad made me. You know that. Aggie please. Aggie.”
I veered around after rejoining Harris.
“I’d love to shoot you myself,” I said. “But, I don’t have the time. Enjoy the minute or two you’ve got left, you backstabbing asshole.”
I ventured outside the tent. Harris stopped, turned towards the soldiers guarding Les and Paul and nodded.
“Aggie,” Les continued to bellow. “Aggie”
The next sound was a gunshot.
“Have a nice trip south,” I muttered. “And give Dad the finger for me.”
Matthew Emma asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work