This short story is based on true events. Only slightly embellished.
The first sign we saw on the side of the dirt road said:
Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king. 1 Peter 2:17
The second one said:
You are entering God’s Country. Leave behind the things of man.
We had heard it was a church that had contacted the two of us to come lifeguard for $15 an hour, but we didn’t know what denomination. We weren’t sure where to park, but there appeared to be a main building up ahead. There were a few other cars in a small gravel parking lot underneath a massive weeping willow, so we pulled in there.
Paul, in his usual, nonchalant demeanor, suggested we go into the main building and find someone who could tell us where to go. The chilly breeze carried with it the barely audible sound of singing voices, but neither Paul or I acknowledged it to each other. The only other sound was the dry leaves crunching under our shoes.
Just when I reached my hand out to try the door, a voice came from behind us.
“Hello!” it said. It was a male voice but it had a feminine softness about it. We turned and saw a lanky, curly-headed gentlemen who looked to be in his mid-forties. His pastel knit sweater matched the quality of his voice.
“You must be Paul and Dana,” he said. “Thank you so much for coming.”
The YMCA we worked at had received a call requesting the service of two lifeguards for 4 hours on a Sunday afternoon. Paul and I agreed, excited about the prospect of earning 5 dollars more than our normal salary. We were curious about what exactly we’d be doing, though, considering that it was the middle of January and the high was 50 degrees.
“My name is Enoch, and I’m the director here,” the effeminate man went on, “let me show you where we’re going to have you working today.”
He turned and began walking in the opposite direction, toward another entrance into the building.
“So what kind of church is this?” I asked.
“It’s called Church of The Lord’s Brotherhood. We have a very small membership, so we often lease out our property to other churches if they’d like to have a retreat for a couple of weeks in a beautiful, secluded area of the state.”
Paul and I exchanged a glance. I think we both knew what the other was thinking: Church of The Lord’s Brotherhood? Never heard of that one.
It had taken us about 45 minutes from the YMCA to drive out into the boonies, and I could see why it would make a nice place for a retreat. As we walked behind Enoch, the singing we’d heard so faintly before was growing louder. I was pretty sure I could make out the sound of a guitar.
“We’re going to have you lifeguarding down on the dock today,” Enoch said. “There are a couple of canoes out there and we just wanted to ensure extra safety for our guests. Liability can be a tricky thing. I don’t even know how many people will want to use them, though, considering the temperature.”
We turned the corner of the building and before us was an immense yard, sloping gradually downward to a lake. I could see the tiny dock and the aforementioned canoes. But the most striking thing was the two groups of people, both about 20 strong, both sitting around small fires. The source of the singing and the guitar strumming was finally revealed to us, as the group on the right featured two guitarists and the rest singing along. The circle of people to left sat listening to a middle-aged woman giving some sort of speech. I could hear her voice but she was just far enough away that I couldn’t make out any words.
“You’ll find two lifeguard rescue tubes on the dock, and if there’s anything else you need, let me know.”
“Should we come find you in four hours?” Paul asked.
“No, I’ll come for you,” Enoch said. He then turned and walked back towards the main building.
Paul and I walked down the slope of land, through the middle of the two groups. The music coming from our right was a folk song, but it was in another language.
I turned to Paul and asked, “Do you know what language that is?” I was genuinely curious but the main reason I turned was that some of the singers had looked over at me and I was a tad put-off by the eye contact.
“I dunno, dude,” Paul said. His favorite phrase.
I looked to our left at the woman preaching to her small group. None of them looked back at me, though. Their eyes were fixated on their teacher.
We reached the dock. The lake in front of us was rather small–maybe only a quarter mile in diameter. The dock we were on was the only one on the entire lake. The rest of the shoreline was just tall weeds. Straight across from our vantage point, the land immediately beyond the lake ascended upwards, giving the us the feeling of being at the bottom of a valley.
Paul and I took in the view, our hands in the pockets of our hoodies. The canoes tied to the dock were the standard summer camp type – made of aluminum with two benches. In the bottom of them were several moldy, faded orange life vests and plenty of dirt.
“You think anyone’s going to use these?” I asked.
“I hope not. It’s damn cold. Could you imagine having to jump in and save someone in this weather?”
I nodded. We continued to stare out at the lake. The water was a murky brownish color, and it was peppered with whitecaps as the wind began to pick up.
There was some hooting and hollering behind us, and Paul and I turned around to face the two crowds of people.
The cheers were from the group that had been singing, who were apparently elated at the new song the guitarist began to play. A few of them shot glances in our direction. Some of them mumbled to each other after they sized us up.
“So have you heard of Church of the Lord’s Brotherhood?” Paul asked.
“Sounds like a cult.”
I snickered, but Paul had voiced exactly what I’d just been thinking.
I pictured what we must have looked like to them. Two guys – separate from the crowd. Outcasts. Standing isolated at the end of the dock, our backs to the lake.
“When did the guy call us?” I wondered.
“Yeah, it was just a couple of days ago right?”
“Two, maybe three.”
“So he must have known the weather would be like this.”
Paul looked at me. His usual unflappable demeanor had been somewhat broken. “So?”
“So, why couldn’t he just do this himself? I mean, lifeguarding for canoes? In forty-five degree weather? Offering us fifteen bucks an hour? Doesn’t make sense.”
We looked back towards the crowds. The group that had been listening to the woman now broke out a couple of guitars. They picked up on the same tune as the other group. Now everyone was singing and swaying sideways in unison.
Several minutes passed. Paul and I continued to take in the scene.
“I dunno. I’m getting a strange feeling,” Paul said.
“Yeah, me too. Something is definitely wrong with this picture.”
“Seriously. Church of the Lord’s Brotherhood? Why didn’t we just leave when he said that?”
“We could leave now.”
“Dude, if they don’t want us to leave, we’re not going anywhere. Look in front of you.”
He was right. Thick trees on either side. At least 20 people in front of us. I glanced back over our shoulders.
“We could swim for it,” I proposed.
“That might be our only chance. It’ll be cold, but if we swim fast and keep our blood flowing, we might make it. I don’t think the highway is far.”
Paranoia had swallowed us. We were here for a reason – to be sacrificed for the Brotherhood. It all made sense. The signs on our way in. The way Enoch got us stranded out on the dock. Nowhere to go.
“Oh shit,” Pear said. There was a palpable tremble in his voice. I looked at his face. His eyes had widened and he took a step backwards. I dreaded turning in the direction he was looking. I already knew what I’d see – they’d all be slowly walking toward us. Some of them spouting prayer. Some of them brandishing weapons. All of them staring hungrily at their next victims.
But I couldn’t bear not glimpsing my fate. My bowels began to quiver as I turned to look up the hill.
There were only two approaching. A mid-twenties girl with long curly hair and some strange little hat on her head that looked slightly familiar. With her was an equally young guy. He also wore the same headgear. They were both smiling.
Paul and I were frozen. Gone was our plan of swimming for our lives. We could only stare at our grisly plight. Frozen in terror. On came the first two messengers, surely sent to inform us of our impending slaughter.
The messengers reached the base of the dock.
“Paul?” I muttered. It was all the power I could summon.
Then they stopped, only a few feet away. This was it. The harbingers of our deaths.
“So,” the curly headed girl asked with a vivacious smile, “are you guys Jewish, too?”