The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense. – Tom Clancy
In 2011, I started writing my first fictional work that would become a published offering. Well, that’s not quite true. My first book, A Train Called Forgiveness, is not really fictional. It’s based on my own life experiences. It’s a true story about my childhood in a cult. I changed the names and places and embellished a little, so I called it fiction.
One Thing Leads To Another…
After I finished A Train Called Forgiveness, I thought I was done writing fiction. But something happened. My brother called me with some news that prompted an idea for a second book about the cult leader of my youth. So I decided to write a trilogy.
The second book, At The Crossing Of Justice And Mercy, would have to be fictional because it would be based on an unproven premise. Even so, there’s still a lot of reality in that book, too. Often fiction is reality in disguise. Stick around. I’ll be sharing the first chapter of At The Crossing Of Justice And Mercy later in this post.
Have You Read The Cult Trilogy?
Recently, I completed the third book to the trilogy. The Track To Redemption wraps up the story. Um, not exactly. The book will leave you satisfied as a reader. I wouldn’t leave you hanging. But one story can always lead to many other stories. That’s the beauty and magic of fiction: one thing leads to another and another and…
If you’d like to read some excerpts from A Train Called Forgiveness, check out these posts:
- Chapter 1 – Getting Started Is Half The Battle: My Story
- Chapter 2 – The Darkness Of Our Past Can Lead To A Future Of Light
- Chapter 3 – Cult Trilogy: A Train Called Forgiveness
If you’d like to read the first chapter of my second book, At The Crossing Of Justice And Mercy, just keep scrolling.
On New Year’s Eve I received a suspicious message from Simon. Annabelle slept sound in her room. Charlie laid at the foot of my chair. I was awake. Most nights I’d have been in bed before ten, but it was New Year’s Eve, and I was determined to ring in 2015, even if, alone. At 11:30, early birds started blasting fireworks. I listened. I imagined bright sparks floating down, pretty patterns of reds, whites, and blues. In the midst of enjoying a swig of dark beer, I heard that familiar little sound: the vibration of my iPhone signaling a new message. “Probably spam,” I said to myself. Curious, I looked. It was an email from my brother, Simon. “That’s strange,” I thought. Simon and I didn’t correspond often. When we did, one of us usually wanted something from the other. I wondered what Simon wanted. I opened the message. What I read changed my life. It took me back and moved me forward at the same time. It stirred up old memories and planted new doubts. Simon’s message said:
I think Peter Smith may still be alive.
Twenty years earlier, in a half-crazed state of mind, I’d written a manuscript. I spent hours, days, weeks, dredging up painful memories of my childhood. You see, I was a child victim of a cult, essentially, a prisoner, a slave. Peter Smith was the leader of the cult. That’s why Simon’s message baffled me. Peter was supposedly dead.
Anyway, after writing the manuscript, I abandoned it on a train. I intentionally left it behind, under my seat as I detrained in Seattle. The manuscript represented my anger, my hate, my shattered past. I wanted to let it go. I needed to start over.
I did start over. I started college when I was 30 years old. I studied communication. I worked in radio for awhile. I spun the same 25 songs over and over. It got old so I decided to get my Master’s degree. Eventually, I became a community-college instructor. Then, out of the blue, about five years ago, I received an odd package in the mail. It was the manuscript, the one I’d left on the train. It was sent by someone who referred to themselves as “J.” He said it was “time to tell my story.” So I did. I cleaned up the manuscript a bit and published it as a book. Perhaps you’ve heard of it: A Train Called Forgiveness? It had some moderate success. Along the way, I’d learned that Peter Smith, the man that had made my childhood living hell, had died. I remember the day very well.
It was early summer, 2001. I’d just accepted a teaching job in Southeast Kansas. My wife, Xena and I were visiting my family near Seattle before making the move. Xena had always been curious about my childhood cult experience, so I drove her to Bonneveldt, a small town in Western Washington. I took her to the old property that used to be Paradise Farms. I drove her downtown and showed her some of the stores that had been owned and operated by Peter Smith and his followers. Most had long since changed names and ownership. Smith Publishing, on Third Street, and The Silver Frame, a small art gallery on Main Street, were still opened.
I wondered if Peter Smith’s people still ran The Silver Frame? I hesitated. “I doubt they still run this place,” I told Xena. “Let’s check it out.” Slowly, we stepped inside. A long string of bells hung loosely inside the door. They jangled as it swung open and then again as it closed behind us with a soft thump. The shop was filled with beautiful artwork, original paintings from well-known Northwest and Southwest artists. There hung a wide selection of custom-made frames, in varying sizes and colors. The shop was quaint and colorful, yet the lighting was not right. “A gallery should be well-lit,” I said. The Silver Frame was dim, even dark in places. The darkness was more than a lack of light. There was more to it. It was a feeling. There seemed to be an aura. It was if someone had lowered a black veil over my mind. Darkness seeped through the air like a thick, black liquid coming from every painting, every corner, every crack, exposing The Silver Frame for what it really was: a fraud. The Silver Frame was a facade. It was the skin of something much deeper. In all its colorful grandeur and external beauty, something was amiss.
Xena and I casually strolled around the store. She admired some of the pieces. I pretended. She was drawn to the Thomas Kincaid copycats. I wasn’t impressed. I saw them for what they were: cheap formulaic imitations. A woman with short brown hair and a practiced smile approached us. “May I help you,” she asked.
I froze. I knew the voice. Her name was Jolene. She didn’t recognize me, but I remembered her from my cult days. I didn’t know what to say. Xena said, “We’re just looking. Thanks.”
The phone rang, breaking the tension. Jolene hurried to the desk to take the call. “This is The Silver Frame. How may I help you?” After the greeting, she turned away and spoke privately, secretly to whoever was on the other end. I continued to act interested in the art. I whispered to Xena, “She’s from the cult. I’m going to ask her a few questions.” After Jolene hung up the phone, I asked, “Who owns this place now?” Jolene hesitated. I redirected my question:
“Is this place still owned by Paradise Farms?”
“Paradise Farms went out of business several years ago,” she replied.
“I know,” I said. “But I also know that this store used to be affiliated with Paradise Farms. I was just wondering if the people who owned Paradise Farms still own this place?”
Jolene stood, perplexed. Her eyes started to dart back and forth across my face. She was searching. She was suspicious of me. She asked, “How do you know about Paradise Farms?”
“My dad used to be friends with Peter Smith,” I said.
“Really?” Jolene looked at me with keen interest. She studied Xena and I, searching for some kind of clue. She said, “You look familiar. What’s your dad’s name?”
“John,” I said. “John Burden.”
She stared hard at me. Her jaw dropped. Her eyes flashed wide. “Andy? Andy Burden?”
Before I had time to reply, the bells on the door jangled. A tall, thin man with short, dark hair and a beard stepped in. In the dimly-lit gallery, set against the brightness of the sun outside, he appeared a silhouette. I was spooked. I knew his silhouette. As he moved closer, I saw the red hair and the almost-orange color of his short beard. Just as I was beginning to speak his name, Jolene said, “Russell, remember Andy Burden, John’s son?”
I became nervous as Russell moved closer. I shifted my body toward him. He carefully kept his distance. “Andy?” He stepped into better light and stared at me for a moment. His eyes were an icy shade of blue, yet intense, as if they were on fire. I sensed a strange combination of emotion in those eyes. I felt fear, anger, and confusion. I sensed a deceptive sort of… hmm, it could only be described as, misplaced peace, in Russell’s eyes. He wore a false calm. He kept staring directly into my eyes. It was hypnotic. If his eyes could have started a fire, I’d have been set ablaze.
Russell seemed uncomfortable. He wouldn’t come any closer than twelve feet away from me. He never broke his eye contact. He asked, “So how’s your dad, Andy?”
“He’s doing okay,” I said. “He’s living down south of Seattle now.”
Xena wandered through the store. Jolene followed her. I heard Xena commenting about one of the Kincaid-like pieces.
“That’s good,” Russell said. “I heard your brother Joel went back to school.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He took a few classes at Lebuke Community College. I just finished my Master’s degree at Washington State University.”
Russell raised his eyebrows at me, surprised, as if I were lying. Back in the cult, I was the smallest, the weakest. I was picked on constantly by both the leaders and my peers. I was treated as if I were stupid. I knew what Russell was thinking: How could dumb Andy Burden have gone on to get a higher education? “Really,” Russell said, skeptically. “What’s your area of study?”
“Communication,” I replied. “I did some studies on the persuasive power of cult leaders. I wanted to write my thesis about Peter Smith and Paradise Farms, but Peter never wrote down his sermons. So I switched my topic to the protest music of Woody Guthrie.”
Russell was obviously uncomfortable with the subject of Peter Smith and the cult. He shifted his position and changed the direction of the conversation. “Is Joel still playing music,” he asked.
“Yeah, he is,” I said.
“I hope he’s doing well,” Russell said. “He always was a talented musician.”
“Yeah, we did a bunch of recording together a few years back,” I said.
“Really?” Russell looked at me again, with doubt, as if I were making up a story. “I didn’t know you played.”
“Yeah, I play drums, guitar, piano, and some mandolin,” I said. “I’ve actually written more than 200 songs. It’s amazing what one can accomplish when they’re not being enslaved on a farm by a megalomaniac cult-leader.”
Russell was silent. He didn’t know how to respond. I finally got the balls to ask the big question: “So, how’s Peter Smith, these days?”
Suddenly, Xena and Jolene were silent. They both looked back in Russell’s direction. The atmosphere grew more intense. Russell continued to stare directly at me, his icy-blue eyes burning into me. I had the distinct feeling, at that moment, that he could say anything, truth or lie, without breaking his gaze. It was hypnotic. It reminded me of Peter Smith, as if Russell had been trained. After an intense moment of silence Russell said, “Oh, it was so sad, Andy, but Peter died.”
I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked and relieved at the same time, but I wanted more information. “Really? How?”
Russell looked down, briefly, and stared at his feet. When he spoke, he looked directly at me again. “It was about a year ago. One morning Peter just dropped dead of a heart attack in Jared’s front yard.” Russell glanced away and slowly shook his head back and forth. “What a tragic loss,” he said. “Peter Smith was a great man. He was a man of God.”
I wanted to shout at Russell. I wanted to call him a fool. I wanted to ask him how he defined greatness. Was it greatness to heartlessly use others for your own monetary gain? Was it greatness to lie to your followers, claiming you were Michael the Archangel? Was it greatness to… I wanted to ask Russell if he still believed all of Peter’s bullshit, but it was obvious that he did. I kept my mouth shut. I turned to Xena and cued her to move. Just as we were about to leave the shop, the bells on the door jangled again.
Russell looked relieved. It was Joshua Larson, another member of Peter Smith’s group. I was outnumbered. Without taking his eyes off me, Russell said, “Hey, Joshua? Do you remember Andy Burden?”
Joshua had aged. His forehead had wrinkled and he’d gained a few pounds. He’d also grown a sketchy beard. Since the breakup of the cult, he’d moved up in the power ranks. At Paradise Farms, the men with higher power always wore beards. Joshua had a dog with him. It was some type of Spaniel. Joshua looked at me with a frown, contempt in his dark eyes, and mocked, “Yeah, I remember. Andy Burden.” He stared at me with hard, cold eyes and asked, “What are you doing here?” Then, before I had time to answer, he called his dog, turned around and walked back out the door. It was strange. He’d just come in. Why did he turn around and leave?
I was growing uncomfortable with the situation. Something felt odd. I wondered why Russell and Joshua were both at The Silver Frame. Didn’t they have anything else to do. I noticed Jolene making a phone call as I said, “Well, it was nice to see you, Russell.” Xena and I started toward the door.
“You, too, Andy,” Russell replied. “Say hello to your dad and your brother for me.”
“Sure,” I replied. Just as Xena and I reached the door, the bells jangled. Joshua came back into the gallery. He held the door for us as we left, not as a friendly gesture, but as if to say, “Get out!”
* * *
I hope you’ve enjoyed the first chapter of At The Crossing Of Justice And Mercy. To learn more about my books and music, visit my books and music page. If you’d like to buy books from The Cult Trilogy, please visit my Amazon Author page. The books are available in paperback, Kindle, and audio formats.
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