When I was younger, maybe thirteen or fourteen, I snuck out of the house during a rainy Saturday afternoon. My mother was busy climbing mountains of laundry. My father was sending work emails from his office. The house was quiet, save for the sounds of the thunder and the dull hum of the storm, and I tip-toed down the stairs and quietly made my way through the patio door in the kitchen. I wasn’t allowed to play in the rain.
Once outside, I tore through the yard, jumping from puddle to puddle, letting the cold mud splatter across my face and arms. The drops soaked through my hair, making it stick to the back of my neck and wrap around my cheeks, catching bits of mud as I ran around. By the time I finished, every part of me, from the top of my head to my toes nestled inside my socks, was completely drenched. The mud ran down my body in thick, brown lines, racing over my clean shirt and pants in a hurry. I couldn’t have been happier.
Upon realizing I was no longer in the house, my mother looked through the kitchen window, saw my sullied state, and demanded I come inside right then. She made me strip down to my bra and panties on the patio, but it didn’t matter - every part of me was dirty. I stood in the shower, shivering in the warm water, still smiling despite knowing a hefty punishment was due. My mother stood over me, disappointment scrawled across her face. She said, “Lillian, you’re too wild.”
It’s raining now. I can’t see it, but I can hear it, which is even worse. Sometimes I wish the walls were soundproof. We can’t see anything - no lights, no windows. Somehow hearing everything going on above us seems more torturous. Personally, I’d rather have it all taken away - gouge out my eyes, plug my ears, cut off my nose, and pull my tongue until it snaps like a rubberband. If all they left me was a sense of touch, I’d be happy. Sure, I’d have to feel them, but at least I could retreat into my mind - into the quiet, tasteless, dark world void of everything except pain. We need the pain. It keeps us sane, reminds us we’re still people underneath everything that’s happened.
There were promises made when we came here - freedom from societal rules, freedom to roam, freedom to explore each other, freedom to live. I grew up in a world of restrictions, and I found a retreat here, away from everyone. We were secluded. They took our cellphones upon entering. They didn’t have televisions or computers. We didn’t know anything about the outside world once we set foot here - time stood still. Days blurred into weeks, months, years. None of it mattered anymore. We gardened together, ate together, and slept together on large mattresses pushed into makeshift huts. We built everything ourselves with sticks and limbs and torn up clothing and whatever else we could find on hand. We showered under water poured into buckets with holes punched in the bottoms, or some of us would simply strip down in the rain and dance the dirt away.
Brett was the de facto leader, though he didn’t much care for the term. There were no “leaders” or “higher orders.”. He was a tall, lanky man with tangled dark hair, and he wore long, white shirts tied at the waist with rope and torn jeans. He spoke eloquently, in mesmerizing tones. Despite the fact that most of us didn’t understand his vocabulary, there never seemed to be any confusion or miscommunication about what we were doing there: we were building a community of chosen-family.
The idea of “chosen family” was the most important concept for us to grasp. He didn’t self- identify as the father-figure of this model, but we all recognized him as such. Laura, his wife, was our “mother,” and we were all brothers and sisters. It was a unique family tree, composed of people of all ages and all walks of life. The families who joined us recognized their legitimate family ties dissolved instantly, turning their children into equals who answered to Brett and Laura only, forsaking blood in favor of community. Everyone was welcome, even those who were skeptical, and it was understood that everyone was free to go at any time.
The few times people did have to venture into the other world for supplies or necessities, they were seen as a spectacle by those around them due to the way they dressed or smelled or acted. Most of us, like myself, had been brought into the family through friends. Some had heard stories about the community and set off to find it for themselves. People on the other side called us a “cult” or a “commune,” but neither of those words made sense to us. Once inside, the negativity and harshness of the real world stopped existing. Curious people had tried to interview members or sneak in and gather information themselves, but they always went back empty-handed. We weren’t doing anything wrong, and there was nothing to find - we had built utopia.
Brett told us that people on the outside looked down on us because they feared what they couldn’t understand. We were all wild, living at peace with each other and nature. We weren’t tied down by restrictions, and we weren’t ruled by money. We gave away our material possessions before entering. We didn’t have jobs. We simply existed, and it was blissful. To the rest of the world, we were zoo animals. They couldn’t process our lifestyle, so they wanted to gawk at us, instead. There was never a question among any of us that what we were doing could go awry. We had faith in Brett and Laura, and we took care of each other - it was a family, in the truest sense of the word.
Our numbers grew substantially. When I came, there were fifty-two of us. Within two years, there were so many people, we started to lose track of each other. Brett and Laura decided we needed something more concrete than our claimed land in the woods, so we moved. The money and valuables we had given up in the beginning were used to buy the abandoned apartment complex, diving headfirst back into the society we had given up on. Acclimating to our new life was a struggle for most of us. It was confusing, being driven back to the land of electricity and running water and being told we couldn’t dance naked in the rain anymore.
The decline was small. Brett started inviting women to his apartment, asking them to spend the night with him and Laura. It wasn’t sexual at first - no different than the bed sharing we had grown accustomed to. Sex was never a priority for most of us. Some members did engage with each other, but it felt taboo - we were brothers and sisters, not partners. However, none of us felt the need to question Brett and Laura. We were all sure they had our best interests in mind, so the women obliged to keep them company. When I was asked, I went with no expectations of what I would experience.
My first night, Brett lit a cigarette as we ate dinner - something I hadn’t seen in years. The smoke hung in the stale air while he talked, praising our success as a family and asking how I was adjusting to our new environment. Laura was quiet, picking at the food on her plate, never looking up to make eye-contact with me. There was tension. She stood to clear our plates, then retreated to the bathroom to take a shower. Brett watched her leave, and when the sound of the water started running, he turned to me, eyes moving up and down my body, and said,
“Lillian, you look beautiful tonight.” I felt the blush in my cheeks. For some reason, his words felt wrong. He didn’t speak to us that way - he saw us as his children.
Noticing my discomfort, he pulled back, saying, “I didn’t mean to sound crass, dear. I just meant that our lifestyle has been good to you. Wouldn’t you agree? Don’t you feel healthier? Stronger?”
I nodded in agreement, but the sinking feeling in my stomach said otherwise. I glanced to the bathroom where Laura was showering. Something wasn’t right. “I think you’ve blossomed here,” he continued, “I think we all have. We’ve made something wonderful.”
He lit another cigarette, never taking his eyes off of me. “I think so, too,” I said, shifting in my seat.
“Good,” he said, “I’m glad you see it, too. I’m looking forward to our night together.” His words, though innocent enough, had a menacing tone. He expected something.
“I might have to turn down the offer,” my words were shaky, “I’m not feeling well tonight.” “Nonsense,”he countered, “You’re staying here. We can take care of you.”
I knew he wouldn’t let me leave, so I stayed. Laura hid in the bathroom for over an hour. I could hear the muffled sobs she was trying to cover, probably stuffing her face into a towel. Brett stripped down completely before ushering me into their bedroom. By the time Laura joined us, he had already started. I laid there, tears streaming down my face, quiet as a mouse. He grunted and jolted before turning over to wrap his arms around his wife, sighing in satisfaction. Before I closed my eyes, he said, “What a wonderful family we are.”
And so it began - Brett started taking more and more “wives,” and the men in our community followed suit. Before long, everyone belonged to someone, and the territorial lines were drawn. I was brought into Brett and Laura’s house, along with seven other women. The cramped quarters were enough to drive anyone crazy, fueled by the obvious jealous brewing. I didn’t want to be there, but I couldn’t leave. I had no money, no car, nothing to my name - Brett had taken it all.
It was the first of many shifts our lives would take before becoming what they are now. I, like most of the women in our community, live in a basement - no windows, no lights, surrounded in darkness. We are called the “breeding stock,” chosen for reasons ranging from our intellect to our looks to our level of cooperation. The women above us, like Laura, are symbols of the community. They put on pretty smiles for everyone, welcome new members, and quietly select those who will join us here. Those who tried to fight back disappeared. The community above ground keeps up appearances and wards away curious eyes, and we live here, pulled out daily to mate with any number of men.
It’s been raining for quite some time today, but I can still hear one of us - Emily - crying and begging from just over my head. We keep track of our days and nights by the noises. Sleep is done in shifts, with everyone taking turns for fear something catastrophic might happen. When one of us gets pregnant, she is taken away to spend the duration of her pregnancy in assigned quarters before returning after the baby is born. The women who can’t get pregnant are exiled - it’s never the fault of the men.
Emily returns and as the door is opened, the flood of light feels blinding. I see her shadow making its way through the darkness, but I can’t see anything behind her. She takes a spot beside me as the door closes, whimpering and shifting uncomfortably. We don’t have kind words for each other anymore - we’ve said them all too many times. I feel her shoulder brush against mine, her sobs syncing with the storm around us, and I lean into it.
“Emily,” I start, “Tell me your favorite memory.” Days like today, the easiest way to pass the time is to reminisce.
“I had just married my husband. We were driving off from the wedding party. Everyone was cheering and laughing and I was a little drunk from the champagne. I looked behind us and saw our friends and family getting smaller and smaller, and then I looked over to him. He turned and met my eyes, just for a moment, but it was all I needed. There was something about that look, the way he grinned, that let me know we were in love.”
Above us, footprints shuffle and someone starts yelling. I can’t see her face, but I can feel the worry radiating off her body.
“That’s a nice one. My favorite memory is the time I snuck out of my house during a rainy day, like today, and splashed through all the puddles and mud in the yard. I needed it, you know? Sometimes you just need to feel wild. And running through all that filth - it was the wildest I had ever felt.”
There are more footsteps, this time running, coming from the ceiling. Everyone starts stirring, whispering about what could be happening. The yelling sounds frantic. I’m pressed against the wall, but Emily pushes into me harder.
“Tell me something else,” I say, as the fear pours over me like cold water.
“One time,” her voice is shaking, “I snuck out of the house, too. Not to play in the rain or anything. I just wanted to take a walk at night. It seemed so romantic in the movies. I made it all the way to the park before my father drove up beside me, demanding I come home.”
A gunshot rings out, and everyone stands up, starting to race towards the door we know is locked. I stay seated, so does Emily.
“Was he mad?” I ask, unable to hide the panic in my voice.
“Oh yeah,” she says, “He was furious.” She’s crying, and her tears start to wet my shoulder.
“Tell me something else, anything else.”
She doesn’t get the chance.
The door is thrown open, and the noise is deafening. Men are shouting, shots are being fired. The women start piling through, pushing and shoving and screaming for their lives.
“I’ll kill ‘em all,” a man says.
“Step away from the door,” an unfamiliar voice commands.
The women who have already pushed through start making noises at a level higher than a scream. The gunshots ring out, one after the other.
“Get out of here, or I’ll keep fucking shooting,” he says.
More gunshots. More shouting. I’ve pulled Emily into the corner with me, my hand over her mouth to stifle her cries.
A figure comes into the doorway, a shadow of a man holding a gun, and I hold my breath. I can’t hear anything beyond the blood pulsing through my ears. I close my eyes, clutching Emily as tightly as I can, and the man in the doorway shoots into the crowd. I tried to count, but there were too many shots. I couldn’t open my eyes - I didn’t want to see it.
After staying in the dark for so long, we could all sense each other. After an eternity of gunfire, the room felt empty. I let go of the breath I was holding and of Emily, exhaling onto my knees. She screams. All around us, our sisters, are on the ground in heaps. I hear footsteps coming down the stairs, and I think about the mud. I think about the way it felt in my hands. I think about the stains it left in my shirt that never came out.
A flashlight peers into the room, illuminating the carnage, before a voice calmly says, “If there’s anyone here, please come with me. You’re safe now.”
A man in a police uniform makes his way in, stepping over the bodies.