Gladys Vandelay – The Initiation
In the U.S., I heard there was a march on Washington D.C., a women’s march where prominent figures of influence and fame gathered in solidarity. It was a rallying call to address key issues women faced in society. Of their grievances, I understood they called for things like reproductive rights, gender equality, health care reform, equal pay, and an overall acceptance towards the right of a woman to do and be whatever they wanted.
I’m not sure if this movement was promulgated by the Swords of St. Catherine or not, either way, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted in so many ways. In the United States, women have so much control, so much power, so much influence. We can say what we want. Do what we want. There are obstacles sure, but the trials and tribulations makes us ten times stronger than men. I embraced them.
And if the women of America are ten times stronger than men on the basis of that logic, then I can tell you from the bottom of my heart and with the utmost sincerity… The women fighting in the Middle East are a hundred times more powerful.
In many countries, women are still treated like cattle, like currency, like a bartering chip between families. I’ve seen women stoned for exposing too much skin. I’ve seen teenage girls beheaded simply for reporting they were raped. I’ve seen entire villages beating on women for walking without a man’s supervision or daring to take off her hijab in the scorching sun.
In Saudi Arabia, there’s a practice called Wahhabism by which groups of clergy men literally patrol the streets like wolves to surround and attack anyone they deem violators of their sacred laws. They were given carte blanche to determine for themselves what’s consider blasphemy or treason. Women are their main targets.
Here, women need the permission of men to marry, divorce, educate themselves, seek employment, or even open a bank account. That’s just to name a few. And God forbid any woman was caught driving, though I heard they recently ‘laxed on that law. The punishments ranged from mutilation, stoning, death, and on occasion, crucifixion.
Saudi Arabia was my first stop when I came to the Middle East. An underground activist tutored me and the three other protégés on the customs. My blue eyes and blonde hair would have made me an eyesore by which the wolves would be driven to a frenzy. Thankfully, I was able to fully take advantage of the abaya and niqab, black robes that would conceal my fair skin. Additionally, I darkened my face with foundation and used brown contact lenses.
Initially, the plan was to spend five days in Saudi Arabia before smuggling ourselves north into Jordan. But one of my comrades, Shelly, she saw a group of men raping a student in an alley outside our loft. Shelly attacked. The ensuing battle was loud, bloody, and attracted the Wolves of Wahhabi. That’s when I intervened with my trusty Dragunov sniper rifle. The bodies we left in the streets roiled the public for months.
We were long gone by time the police raided shops and homes with impunity, but I learned very fast that all actions had unintended consequences. The public demanded justice and the government gave it to them. The student who was raped was publically beheaded. Her entire family was stoned in the middle of a town square.
When I heard about that, my heart blazed with ire. As much as I was pissed at Shelly for intervening, it made me sick to my stomach that an innocent student could be killed for simply being a victim. And if you’d ask the community, they’d tell you that she wasn’t innocent, that she shouldn’t have been walking alone, or wearing clothing that would invite such an attack. Like animals. That’s how I judged them. Only animals are numb to compassion, acting on their baser instinct like mindless sharks chomping at the bait. Vile savage animals.
It was the first of many dilemmas I’d face in the Middle East. Injustice was an everyday occurrence and we had to discern, we had to pick and choose our battles wisely. Some, we intervened. And some, we simply had to endure the screams, the heart-wrenching cries for help. We couldn’t risk exposing our organization, compromising our allies, and sabotaging the myriad of missions that were already in motion.
After a three-month odyssey, us four protégés reached a desert village about fifteen miles south of Raqqa in Syria. Here, we joined a group of fighters who came from all over the world. It was a resistance group in retaliation to ISIS after a wave of refugees started fleeing the region and marked a global economic crisis.
The leader of our battalion was a woman named, Cyrine, a Tunisian battle-tested warrior with the fiercest gaze I’d ever seen. Her voice was loud and tyrannical. When she met the four of us, I already knew. There was a silent nod that we understood on some telepathic level. Cyrine was a full-fledged Sword of St. Catherine.
For two years, our battalion wreaked havoc on ISIS insurgents all across the Fertile Crescent. The fighting was intense. It was an actual war. There where days when I didn’t eat. Sometimes I had to sleep in rat-infested basements while mortars bombarded sections of a city. Everything was a potential IED. Sand got everywhere. The heat was unbearable. Toilet paper and clean water had more value than gold. It was a test of will. When vets said they had PTSD, I believed them. You’d be crazy not to.
A fellow protégé named Allison Tuney was the first to die. It was a reality check that hit harder than anyone could possibly imagine. Up till her death, we had seen considerable success. It was tough with some battle lasting for days but one by one, we’d regain control of a town and each victory inflated our egos. We were four young women outperforming all of the men in terms of body count and competence.
But when Allison fell to a sniper’s shot, it was the turning point. I’ll never forget it. We were on watch and I was sitting with my back against the rampart of a tower. Allison was scanning the frontlines with her night-vision goggles. Just for a moment, she looked down and smiled at me as she was trying to say something. That’s when the bullet passed through her temple. Her body slumped over and Shelly screamed so loud that pulling an alarm would have been redundant.
All the sudden, its like everything was turned up to hyper speed. My heart rate increased. Lights and faces blurred and my vision tilted sideways as I raced for my Dragonuv. Cyrine ordered us to evacuate. I refused. I was angry. I had to kill someone. Cyrine pulled on my shoulder and I reacted by jabbing her with the butt of my rifle.
That was a mistake.
The next thing I remember was waking up in the back of a truck with Shelly and Sanya looking over me. The back of my head was swollen and I could still feel where I was kicked in the ribs.
Two nights later, Cyrine summoned me. She was sitting by a fire outside our encampment on the banks of Lake Assad. It was on the other side of a ridge, underneath an acacia tree.
Cyrine told me to take off my hijab. I refused. She chuckled. Cyrine and ten other women in our battalion of about a hundred were from places ranging from Egypt to Pakistan. They didn’t need to conceal their appearance. The Middle East was their home. However, Cyrine always spoke English with a British accent. I thought that was strange.
“You know I should kill you. On the battlefield, a soldier is not permitted to disobey her superior. It’s called insubordination.”
I didn’t respond. Up to this point, my respect for Cyrine was only so-so. I acknowledged she was a competent commander but too callous. She didn’t bat an eye when she shot a child for delivering what looked like a bomb, which actually turned out to be a can of beans. That struck a chord with me.
Cyrine let down her own hijab. Her fluid black hair was pulled back and she had an even olive complexion. She smiled before leaning back, propped up by her hands in the sand. “Where you’re come from, are all women like you? Imbued with spite and impudence?”
“Where I come from there is no one like me. Where I come from, women complain, and bitch, and moan. I’m one of the few who takes up the sword to do something about it.”
She chuckled. “Celeste was right. Rage. Although, I would also add naïve and full of shit to your dossier as well. Have you learned nothing during our trials and tribulations? Anything at all?”
“What else did Celeste tell you?”
“Ooh! Cheeky.” She smirked. “Well…I heard a certain Andalusian cares deeply about you. Perhaps that’s why they assigned you to me? Because they know I won’t go soft on you. Cross me again and I’ll not hesitate to put you in the ground.”
I rolled my eyes and turned to walk away. The moment I turned my back, I heard this fast, aggressive shuffle. Cyrine launched from the banks and tackled me from behind. She ripped off my hijab and shoved me face-first into the sand. I whipped around to claw at her but she leaned back and came down with both hands on my throat, squeezing hard.
“Go on! Scream!” She laughed.
I grabbed a handful of sand and slung it at her. She was still laughing as she covered up in time, but her hands were no longer on my throat. I kicked her off. Then we circled each other like territorial cats, each wide-eyed with electricity coursing through our veins.
“Come on then. Let’s see this rage!” She shouted.
I went at her with everything I had. I belted her ribs, smacked her face, and even pulled off an impressive crescent kick that connected with her jaw. She dropped to her knees once, but grinned and dusted herself off.
“You were trained well. Truly. You were. But here’s what you need to learn.”
She ran at me full strength before scooping me up with both hands hooking to the back of my knees. She slammed me down, mounted, and forced both of my wrists into the coarse sand. Then, she flattened out to bring her entire weight upon me, belly to belly, breast to breasts. She pecked me with kisses to my neck and cheek, groping, grinding her pelvis into mine as she whispered and giggled in my ear.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, you’ll always be weaker. Without your guns, without guile, you are powerless. Any brainless oaf can do what I’m doing now and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”
She grabbed my face and clenched hard to force my jaw open. “This is what it means to be a woman in their world. The only way to survive is to reverse the roles by force. Like this!” She said before grinding into me.
“And like this!” She said, grinding again.
“GET OFF OF ME!!!” I finally screamed at the top of my lungs.
Cyrine forced her tongue into my mouth. I bit as hard as I could. I knew I drew blood because I tasted salt. She laughed before biting my neck and sucking hard. I got one of my wrists free and punched her with perspiration flying from her face. That finally got her to roll off.
I scurried over to where I dropped my rifle, whipped it up, and while crouching on one knee I aimed my crosshairs for the pit of her throat. She was breathing hard with satisfaction, still laying on her back in the sand. I thumbed off the safety switch, fully prepared to fire.
“Anyone who kills a Sword can never become one.” She told me. “More importantly, to kill a sword is to sign your own death warrant. You’ll be hunted from the capitals to the Himalayas. Now put the gun down, love. Before you really make me mad.”
I was about to throw up, grinding my teeth to fight back the queasy, gross feeling agitating in my stomach. I could still the residual warmth of her breasts against mine. So badly I wanted to kill that bitch. I fired a single shot. It hit the ground and popped sand in her face. Shelly and Sanya must have heard. They came running.
“Touch me again, and I’ll kill you.”
“Gladys! Your hijab.” Sanya reminded.
I hurried to cover myself before others in our battalion arrived.
“Don’t worry. Just sorting some things out. All sorted.” Cyrine told them. Then she dismissed us. And for all I knew, she just laid there under the acacia tree for the rest of the night, smoking a cigarette as she stared up at the stars.
Allison’s death coupled with Cyrine’s sexually abuse really had a detrimental affect on how I viewed humanity. Once, I was willing to put my own needs aside for the betterment of others. Once, I felt bad for the screams, the women taken advantage of, the public executions, the homosexuals being tossed off rooftops.
I won’t go so far as to say I stopped caring. But it’s more like I used these injustices as a highly combustible source of fuel, like pumping coal into a furnace, intensifying my rage, my relentless drive to accomplish my goal, complete my missions. I wouldn’t realize till later, but there was this sick, almost excited anticipation of evil that I hoped for. Without evil, without injustice, without a need to avenge…why would I even exist? What else did I have to live for?
Those were the dark thoughts that permeated for two years. I felt no love. No happiness. No joy. Just rancor and an outlet for my violence. Shelly was killed when a building collapsed during the battle to retake Raqqa. Sanya succumbed to an ambush during a raid on Mosul.
Everyday I wished for some IED, some ambitious sniper to take out Cyrine, but no such luck. I ended up fighting side by side with her in some of the most savage gun fights that would never be reported by the media or documented in history books. Once, we stopped a group of jihadis from a mass beheading along the Murat. And by “we,” I mean me and my mounted machine gun from the other side of the river.
We heard about a sect of jihadists who had kidnapped over two hundred girls from a school in Pakistan. They planned to make them brides, to produce a new generation of war-mongering hate spawns. It was perhaps the one time Cyrine and I were on the same page.
She, I, and two other commandos from Singapore infiltrated their camp in the cold desert of Katpana. Armed with just my twin Glocks, I must have dropped at least eighteen before running out of ammo. I helped the girls escape and escorted them back to their villages, but even there, I could tell from the way the elders looked at me that a helping of gratitude would not be served.
Those young innocent girls…they truly were like shells occupied by a timid, submissive ghost. I spotted maybe one or two who were independent free thinkers, bold enough to ask a question or two, but the rest…
The strange thing was that I never had any nightmares. I wasn’t tormented by the faces I sniped from afar. My hands didn’t quiver from pulling the trigger so much and I wasn’t paranoid about raids or IED explosions. This wasn’t normal. Something was wrong with me. And every day I saw Cyrine…I’d have the insatiable urge to go out and kill some more.
On my twenty-first birthday, after three years of what could only be described as hell on earth, Cyrine entered my tent and said I had a visitor. In walked Breanne, Anna, and Scarlet dressed in coalition fatigues, not covered by hijabs, their hair and ethnicity open for all the world to see. I didn’t even get up out of my cot. I just lay there with utter contempt for all of them.
Anna walked over and sat beside me. She put a hand on my stomach and asked if I was all right. I politely removed her hand and said I was fine. Anna…so badly, I wanted to ask her, “What were you thinking by sending me here? With her?!”
I could see in Anna’s eyes that she was concerned, but I honestly believed I was beyond the point of salvation. Whatever they were training me for, I knew I was ready. Because I wasn’t afraid of anything. That’s what I believed.
“It’s time, Gladys,” said Breanne “Your family hasn’t heard from you in three years. They’re beginning to ask questions and there’s only so much your proxy can say that would convince them you’re still in London.”
I didn’t respond.
“See what I mean?” Cyrine said as she plopped down on my duffle bag.
“Don’t tell me you actually want to stay here?” said Scarlet
“She doesn’t. Look at her. She’s miserable.” Anna presumed.
“It doesn’t matter. You’re to report home at once.” Breanne ordered.
I sat up and took in a deep breath, inhaling through the nose with obnoxious intent. “I just have one question, Breanne. Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?”
Breanne and her blue eyes and long black hair…they just waltzed in here barking orders to a certified serial killer. Glancing at each other with baffled expressions, both Cyrine and Scarlet burst out with laughter.
I snapped and reached for my field knife. Anna caught my wrist but I simply dropped the knife and caught it with my other hand, swiping at her and missing.
“Gladys! Stop!” Anna shouted as she pinned me to the bed.
“GET OFF OF ME!” I screamed.
Anna was so shocked by the explosion of emotion that she quickly let go and stood at a distance. She must have recognized my trauma because she immediately cast her glare on Cyrine.
“What did you do?”
Cyrine stood up and approached Anna with the swagger and confidence she’s donned since the moment I met her.
“Nothing serious. We had a little fun is all. Didn’t we? I think she—“
Before she could finish her sentence, Anna knocked her out with the most devastating right cross I’d ever seen. Judging from the silence, I assumed Scarlet and Breanne approved of Anna’s reaction.
“Get your things. Let’s go.” Scarlet said before storming out of the tent.
Saying nothing further, I sheathed my field knife, collected my trusty Glock 19s, and strapped my Dragonuv over my shoulders. Then I ripped off my hijab and let it furl over Cyrine’s face. Somewhat liberated, I emerged from the tent and looked up at the sun before releasing my long golden locks to let sail in the wind. At last.
The flight back to America was…peculiar. I was on a private jet with all the first class amenities. I had gone so long running in cargo pants with a scratchy fabric over my face. Wearing a designer skirt, a white blouse, with a matching light-jacket, I felt somewhat exposed and uncomfortable.
I peered out towards the mustard colored clouds that blanketed this rotten world when suddenly a familiar tune played over the speakers. Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie.” My favorite selection, the one I mastered when I was but eleven. How quaint. Once upon a time, the melody would wash over me like a warn breeze on a nice autumn afternoon. Now…there was nothing.
“I remembered. Your favorite.”
I turned to see Anna bringing me a glass of orange juice.
“Once upon a time.” I told her, nodding my thanks for the juice.
She sat down next to me while Scarlet and Breanne occupied the seats facing us. Breanne…She was always the type to smile in the spirit of being courteous, but by then, I knew it belied skepticism and doubt. She examined me with invading eyes. And Scarlet, the woman in the black inverted bob cut who used scared the wits out of me, like a wild animal that could never be completely domesticated, she seemed more docile than before.
It was all just so strange. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of anything. Couldn’t help but wonder and jump to conclusions. Suspicious of everyone. Even Anna.
“How do you feel?” Breanne asked me.
My first thought was, “How the hell do you think I feel?” My second was, “as if you have the right to know.”
I said nothing.
“Your initiation is nearly complete, Gladys. There’s but one more test before we can bring you into the fold.”
“Another test?” I asked.
“The ultimate test, to show whether you’re dedicated, committed to the cause.”
“Breanne…I barely know what the cause is.”
“All these years and you haven’t figured it out? Why on earth do you think we had you read Emma Goldman or Virgina Woolf?” Scarlet questioned.
“I like that we are all women. I like fighting against the patriarchy. There’s nothing more important to me than being a part of the society. For that, I’m extremely grateful. But with this power, my abilities, the knowledge I’ve attained over these grueling six years of training, what am I to do with it? How can I help? You have to understand, that’s all I ever wanted to know. But you’ve kept me in the dark. It’s been six years and I’m still a protégé despite everything I’ve done, the blood I’ve shed, the lives I’ve ended! For fucks sake! What more do I have to do to show my commitment? What is our ultimate goal?”
Breanne just sat there with those shimmering diamond eyes, her hands on her lap, one resting over the other like a librarian or a teacher.
“Just tell her.” Anna suggested.
“No! She hasn’t leaped the final hurdle.” Scarlet protested.
“Which is?” I damn near barked.
“You’ll find out soon enough, Gladys,” Breanne said. “You’re almost there. When we disembark, you’ll need to reconnect with your family. Repair the bridges deteriorated by your absence. Of course this goes without saying, you can’t let on anything related to your ordeal, your trials and tribulations. It must be as if you’ve fully submerged yourself in your studies abroad. You have to convince your family that you’re still their youngest daughter, modest, meek, and vulnerable.”
Anna reached over and grabbed my hand. She felt the calluses in my palm, at the base of my middle and index finger.
“You’ve come so far. You’re almost there.” She told me.
A heavy sigh passed over my lips and expelled but one tenth of the nervous anxiety related to my family reunion. Breanne’s directions were easier said than done. How does one look into the eyes of their loved ones after having slaughtered close to a hundred? Just, how?
It was a Monday afternoon. Just after Easter. I knew the entire family would be together. They would have returned from their traditional cruise across the Mediterranean. With each step I took in approaching the mansion’s two-leaf doors, it felt like my knees were about to buckle. I didn’t have any bags with me. I left them in the car. My hair was braided to the back. I was wearing white with a new fragrance Breanne selected. I was a new woman, for all intents and purposes. But the sensation of my sniper rifle strapped around my shoulder would never fully fade.
I rang the doorbell. The maid answered. She gasped in her initial response, covering her mouth and backing away as if she had just seen a phantom. It was hard to tell whether she was delighted or frightened. I smiled as I stepped past her and almost immediately, the wave of heart-wrenching nostalgia hit me. The foyer, the grand staircase, the massive family portraits and the antiques adorning the walls, everything was exactly as I remembered it.
Standing at the entry of the library was a taller more physically endowed version of myself. Clarice, she had to have been twenty-five-years old by then. She was still just as angelic and gorgeous as before, but there was something different about her. It’s been three years since we last saw each other, but my childhood memories were replete the torment she inflicted. The last face I wanted to see was hers. And yet there she was, beaming with such gladness.
Even as she ran for me, my hand instinctively moved to the back of my skirt where my gun would normally be. She embraced me and I exhaled sharply as if an IED had just gone off in the distance. She held tight. It was genuine. It was weird.
“I missed you so much.” She gushed.
I didn’t know what to say. Astonishment doesn’t even begin to describe it.
“Puppet! Is that you?”
That’s when I lost it. The sound of my father’s deep, sincere voice reduced me to a puddle. It knocked down the ironclad walls around my heart I’ve spent the last three years trying to build. His open arms were like an oasis in the middle of a barren desert. Into his arms I ran and cried so much. I honestly couldn’t even remember the last time I cried at all. Nothing was held back. I wailed, whimpered, and keened, paying no mind to how it looked or whether it was weak or pitiful. I just let the floodgates go.
Felix Domina Vandelay II was his name. And right there in the middle of the foyer, in his big wooly robe, he cradled me to the floor. And I cried and cried. My mother, my six older brothers Thomas, Fredrick, Michael, James, Alistair, and Gregory, as well as my sisters Emily and Victoria, all of them joined us in one huge huddled embrace. Only Clarice stood from afar, watching us in loving tenderness.
For the rest of the evening I refused to leave my father’s side. He slipped me one question after another about my time abroad and, to my credit, I answered each with detailed insight, having studied the ins and outs of the London School of Economics primarily for this moment.
It wasn’t until after supper when the entire family was sitting around the fireplace in the Great Hall, that Papa finally asked me, “Darling, have I done something in the past to upset you?”
I stared, almost dumbstruck.
“Have I done something to wrong you or cause you distress? For you to be away for so long–”
“Oh no, Papa!” I said, tearing up again. “I’m so sorry I haven’t come sooner. I just, I felt it was one of those things as a young woman I needed to do. So badly, I wanted to visit. So badly, I wanted to write or call. But for me, for my individual growth, I would say, I couldn’t jeopardize that by having my heart softened by your presence, by the sacred love I covet so dear. Believe me when I say these past three years, it was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”
“And what did you do? If you don’t mind my asking?” Clarice asked.
“Let me guess? You had to find yourself.” Gregory playfully scoffed.
“Yes, actually! That’s precisely it. I know it sounds cliché, but you have to admit, we live a very posh, comfortable lifestyle here. How does one know who they truly are if they’re not tested, if they’re not pushed beyond the boundaries of that which they know?”
My father chuckled under his mustache. I was compelled to hug once more.
“Sounds familiar.” He said. “It’s akin to the speech I once gave your grandfather. I thought it was foolish in hindsight, considering my brothers never considered whether the grass was greener on the other side. But it’s in you. Isn’t it, my love? The curious heart of an explorer.”
“I don’t know. I guess.” I said with my voice muffling into his shirt.
“Yes, well while you’ve been gallivanting across the Thames, Fredrick and I have been wrestling with corporate lawyers and hedge fund managers trying to maintain some semblance of the empire our father built. I was hoping your experience in London would prove to be a valuable asset in the boardroom.” Thomas said.
I turned and looked. He was sincere.
“The boys are up and coming executives in the company.” Said Papa. “I still remember you running up and down the halls. Now that you’re grown and educated from one of the most prestigious financial institutions in the world, I was hoping you’d join them. Clarice will show you the ropes.”
“Clarice is a manager?” I asked.
“I have a few investments, a little account, here and there.” Clarice said, a little too modest.
“So what do you say, pumpkin? Are you ready to join the family business?” Mother asked.
“Empire, mother. Call it an empire for the love of God,” Fredrick teased.
“Yes! Nothing would make me happier!” I said with glee.
The next morning, I woke up before everyone else. It was just before daybreak, when a deep blue fog enveloped the estate. I saw the air move like tiny grains of sand, dictated by the sporadic whispers of the wind. I found a pair of blue jeans and a white cotton shawl and ventured out for a walk.
The view of the grounds, the vast fields, the trimmed hedges, the garden statues, the dark tree line beyond the creek, and the blue mist that surrounded all…everything seemed so unreal, as if caught in a dream. The cool moisture caressed my skin and a soft gust propelled me forward.
It was bliss, a heavenly dream I never wanted to end. I remember seeing a mallard guide its chicks towards the garden pond. It was so endearing, I wanted to cry again. I think that deep down I knew. Peace and serenity would never be rewarded to me. Not after the things I’d done. My family estate would never be my home. To even let my heart settle on the idea would’ve been foolish.
That last hurdle Scarlet spoke of. What could have been worse than fighting in the Middle East? The unknown was frustrating and kept me from lowering my shoulders. So badly, I wanted to join the Swords of St. Catherine…to officially call myself a Sword. Whatever it took. I was ready. Anna was right. I had come so far. I had sacrificed my innocence, my future. I had staked my life on becoming a Sword. Whatever hurdle lay before me, I’d clear it. I was determined to let nothing stand in my way.
On the shallow wooden bridge arching over the stream, I leaned on the rails and watched as the sun peaked over the horizon. The smoky woods were to my left. And to my right, the corner of my eye picked up on a golden glow that penetrated the blue like a lamp in the night. It was Clarice, in a navy cotton jacket with a gray scarf. She waved at me with a timid smile. It was so bizarre. Had she really changed so much?
“May I?” She said, asking for permission to join me on the bridge.
I giggled and beckoned for her to come.
She leaned next to me, transferring heat from her shoulders, which I confess, was very much welcomed. After some time of uneasy silence, she did something she’s never done before.
It was sharp and cutting. Our blue eyes met. She was sincere. I felt it.
“All the times I bullied you, it was cruel. It was a mistake. I’m your big sister. I should have protected you from the bullies. Instead I was president of the club. I can’t tell you how long I’ve been racked with guilt and regret. All this time you were away, I honestly thought it was me who drove you away. It reminds me of the story of Joseph. I might not have sold you to slavery, but I felt I cast you out. You didn’t deserve to be treated like that, truly. From the bottom of my heart I am so, so sorry.”
Tears glossed over as I stared in bewilderment. I couldn’t believe it. I had nothing, a total loss of words. It felt like I was choking on my own restraint. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to lie and say it was all okay. So I just stood there as the tears rolled down my cheeks. And just when I was about to unload and convey all the pain and torment I’ve carried for so long, Clarice reached out her arms and embraced me, gently placing a kiss on my forehead.
“I am so sorry!” She whimpered.
I found my hands sliding around her waist to reciprocate her embrace…but something happened. That uneasy queasiness agitating in my stomach. I could feel her heartbeat. It reminded me of another woman who once pressed her breast against mine and the rage slowly started to resurface. My eyes opened wide. I could barely see over her shoulder. I started to shake and she held tighter.
“I should have brought my camera!” Someone shouted.
I turned and was startled to see Papa walking across the grass in his royal coat.
“It really does my heart good to see the two of you finally getting along.” He said.
Just then, a sharp zip cut through the air. I recognized the sound and in an instant, shivers crawled down my spine. Clarice looked to her shoulder. There was a dart sticking out of it. Her eyes rolled back and she collapsed. I caught her before she fell.
“Clarice! Clarice!” I shouted.
“Good heavens! What happened?” Papa said as he hurried over.
“I don’t know. There’s this dart and…”
My instincts kicked in. Again, I reached for my back and my Glock wasn’t there. Looking around with alert eyes, a frozen terror began to course through my veins. We were surrounded. Standing on the lawn, around the creek, emerging from the hedges and even in the woods yonder, there must have been at least twenty female soldiers from the Society, half shrouded amongst the fog.
“What’s going on here? Who are you people?” Papa demanded to know.
“Scarlet!” I said, recognizing one of them. “What’s going on? Why are you all here?”
Her eyes appeared to show sympathy as she jerked her chin for me to look the other way. Breanne…She was coming from the other side of the bridge. Her snow-white visage and those diamond eyes seemed to glow out of the deep blue. Whilst everyone else donned dark soldierly combat uniforms, Breanne was wearing a long black dress with a dark hooded coat that had a fur trim. With the smooth wave of her hand, she tossed a serrated field knife my way.
“This is it, Gladys. The final hurdle. In order for a Sword of St. Catherine to be drawn, she must kill the man she loves the most in this world. He must die.”
I was perplexed at first, but it didn’t take long for the cold stark realization to freeze me in place.
“What is this nonsense? Gladys, who are these people?” Papa said.
The knife slipped from my fingertips as I mumbled, “You don’t mean…”
“We’ve all done it.” Scarlet said aloud as she approached. “It the only way to shed our former selves. Love for the male gender is a risk. And being a Sword of St. Catherine is about the sisterhood. We can’t have the love of one jeopardize us all.”
“Then I don’t want to be a Sword of St. Catherine! I renounce my initiation! I quit my apprenticeship! Where’s Anna!?”
“It’s too late, Gladys!” Breanne said with a fixed stare. “You really think I brought all these women here to accept your resignation? We’ve come too far. You know too much. Felix Vandelay II is the only thing connecting you to your old self. He’s the only thing keeping you from reaching your full potential. Don’t you see? This is your baptism! Take up the blade and emerge a free woman!”
“As long as he lives there will always be doubt. You’ll always second-guess yourself.”
That came from Celeste. Even she was there.
“ANNA!!!” I screamed.
“Anna can’t help you, you stupid bitch!” Scarlet barked.
“Anna doesn’t know you’re all here, does she?” I snarled.
“Anna was a basket case herself,” Celeste said. “But even she got through the initiation. If you really care about Anna, if you really want to join her, this is the only way.”
“No! He’s not the one that I love the most! There’s another man! A secret crush I’ve had since I was little girl.” I protested.
“We’re wasting time.” Scarlett scoffed.
“WAIT!” I shouted.
I flinched as warm hands settled on my shoulders. I turned around and it hurt so much to looked into my father’s kind, disarming eyes. “Puppet, I get the impression that they want you to kill me.”
“No, papa! I would never do that!”
“HA!” Scarlet scoffed. “You should see the scores she slaughtered all up and down the Euphrates. We have pictures.”
“She decapitated a man. I saw it with my own eyes.” Scarlet chuckled.
“What?” Papa gasped.
“No papa! He was raping this innocent little girl, I had to stop him!”
“What are they talking about? What have you done?”
“I’m afraid you’re little angel isn’t so angelic, Mr. Vandelay.” Celeste chimed in. “She’s one of the most ruthless gunslingers we’ve ever seen. You put a fully automatic in her hands and she’ll clear out a whole stadium. Rage issues, I hear.”
Papa shook his head. “That’s nonsense. I refuse to believe…”
“KILL HIM! And you better hurry the fuck up!” Scarlet shouted.
I whipped up the dagger and flung it at Scarlet. She easily dodged it and chuckled as she came charging forward. She threw two punches. I deflected both while reaching for the pistol on her hip. She had an assault rifle around her shoulders but didn’t get a chance to use it. I palmed the muzzle and shoulder-checked her over the railing. She plunged into the stream below.
Immediately, I dropped to my knees and aimed at the ladies on the lawn. They dispersed like rabbits to a swooping hawk, showing off the same training I had. I managed to shoot two in their legs. But then…
Then, a sharp of line of blood sprayed across the right side of my face. With one eye open…it was like slow motion. I saw my father hunch over and stagger against my shoulder. I reached for the sleeve of his robe but he hit the planks of the bridge, laying on his side, facing me.
I just remember staring at him, slack-jawed and convulsing in complete shock. I couldn’t remember if I was screaming or not. In that moment I couldn’t hear anything. There was a deep gash across his midsection. His kidneys were slashed. His lips were moving but he was staring at someone else.
Clarice…I couldn’t believe it. She was standing over us with blood dripping from a Japanese blade. That cold, unmoving expression. As if her eyes were devoid of a human soul, gray and hollow, dead inside.
“Clarice! What are you doing?” I babbled.
Papa groaned in agony as he tried to sit up. I dropped the gun and threw myself on him, cradling in desperation as I pulled him away from Clarice. I begged him to stay alive.
“What’s happening?” He whispered.
“It’s my fault. I am so sorry. It’s all my fault!”
“You’re damn right it is.” Clarice said as she launched herself upon us and drove the short sword through his chest, the tip, piercing through his body and into my clavicle. I was at the bottom of the dog pile with my arms still wrapped around father. Clarice had both hands on the handle of her sword, shoving it deeper into Papa’s chest as she leaned over his body to snarl at me with utter contempt.
“STOP IT!” I screamed.
She reached down and grabbed me by the stems of my hair. “Fuck you, you weak cowardly bitch! I wasn’t supposed to do this! This was your initiation and you failed!” She shouted with spit flying from her lips.
“CLARICE! GET OFF!”
With a thunderous scream, the likes I’d only seen in nightmares, Clarice reared back, yanked the blade from father’s chest with an eruption of blood. She brought it back down in an attempt to stab the middle of my face. I moved just in time.
In a burst of strength, I shimmied myself free and rolled over papa’s fading body to get away. In the blur of motion, I felt the burning sensation of skin peeling from my back. Clarice had caught me with a diagonal strike. I wasn’t sure how deep the laceration was, but I could feel the blood already soaking through my blouse.
All the training in the world was useless at that point. I couldn’t focus. Nothing was making sense. Papa’s body was a distraction that slowed my senses and delayed my reaction. Even with the cut to my back, I was still just so stunned that I barely reacted when I saw Clarice casually walk over and stomp me in my face.
I stumbled backwards against the railing and heard a splash. Scarlet emerged from the stream and wrapped her arms around me and one of the posts. I thought I was going to die. Everything seemed so hopeless. All I could do was cry like a helpless baby.
Clarice just shook her head at me. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. I already killed my man. Papa was supposed to be yours. My job was to lure him out. I’d be rendered unconscious while you did the deed but nope. Between the low fucking dosage of sodium pentothal and all your stalling…Well…here we are.”
Suddenly, my eyes widened with rage. “You bitch. You’re a Sword of St. Catherine? You knew they’d ask me to kill our father and you let them?!”
She lunged over me, her knee to my chest, the sword still in hand. “I’ve been sending him death threats for weeks. You had one job to do and we would have framed it on a patsy, but no. I told them. I freaking told you, Breanne! Gladys is a waste of time. She’d never join the Swords of St. Catherine. Every one of us was born of oppression. Every woman here has sufficient reason to hate men. But Gladys…Gladys just hates everything. You’re no different from a psychopath on a killing spree or a mass shooter hitting up a mall.”
“No.” I exhaled. “I don’t hate everything. Just you. It’s always been you. The source of my rancor. The trigger to my rage. It’s you, Clarice! Just you. And now. I hate all of you!”
Clarice smirked as she turned to Breanne. “You know, this kind of works out better. We could say that the death threats came from her.”
“I was thinking the same.” Celeste added. “Gone for three years doing God knows what in the Middle East. Only to kill her father under the guise of some hidden grudge, money, or Islamic indoctrination. Checks out.”
They waited for Breanne’s approval. She nodded. Scarlet let me go. Clarice yanked me up and slugged me so hard that I went tumbling back and stumbled over my father’s now lifeless body. When I looked up, Clarice was slowly stalking me with that sword. A bullet zipped by my ear. Celeste fired again and it scraped my shoulder. Frightened, I took off running the other way. Breanne simply stepped aside and let me pass.
They all did.
The woods seemed endless. The blue haze persisted. The dream had turned into a nightmare and I was now trapped in a rush of heat, sweat, pain, and fatigue. So badly I wanted to take back the last twenty minutes of my life. It was stupid wishful thinking. Occasionally, a shot would pop off from a distance and strike a nearby tree. I thought I was being hunted so I ran. Huffing and puffing, I ran as hard as I could.
After what seemed like hours, I emerged from the woods and tumbled down a steep slope of moist grass towards the interstate. I hit the post of a guard rail and it hurt so bad that I just laid there, face-down in the dew with my arms covering my head. I cried and wept, so heartbroken and utterly destroyed. I had no plan. No direction. Both of my worlds had caved in. It was an Armageddon. If I bled out from my wounds and died…it would have been mercy.
Suddenly, I heard sound of screeching tires. Someone had just done a U-turn and was accelerating my way. I pushed off the grass and stood up. A silver four-door sedan was speeding my way with the headlights on. The driver came to a skidding stop just inches away from the guard rail. With blood and grass sticking to my face, I watched almost in a catatonic state as Anna raced from the car to come and grab me like a baby from a crib.
“Come on!” She shouted.
She tucked me into passenger’s side and strapped my seatbelt. My eyes were on her, but I said nothing. It was as if my brain was in the process of rebooting and nothing was coming back online. Anna got back behind the wheel and drove off. I must have just stared at her with unblinking eye for well over five miles. Then, my head rolled to press against the window, the cold, refreshing window.
Father…He didn’t deserve to die like that. I kept replaying what happened again and again. Clarice was so smug. She was confident. She wasn’t new. She knew how the Swords of St. Catherine operated. Evil. All of them. Evil was the only word to describe it.
Clarice must have known that I would never bring myself to kill the only man in this world who ever showed me an ounce of affection. She knew I’d fail. That bitch! That sadistic, cold-hearted bitch! All she’s ever done was ruin me. Clarice should have told them that I’d never kill my father. She did tell them. She said she told them. Which means that they knew…oh my god…
My mind scrambled to assemble the pieces. As I rode in the car with Anna, the more and more I thought about it, the greater it burned, this pure unadulterated hatred for Clarice and the Swords of St. Catherine. My tears of sadness were only exacerbated by how completely powerless I felt. What was true, what their intentions were, it didn’t matter. They fucked me over. They never loved me. They never wanted me to join them. I was just a project. An experiment. Breanne’s little test study!
“Gladys are you okay?” Anna asked.
I keeled over and vomited through both my mouth and nose.
“AAAAAAAAAARGGHHH!!!!!” I screamed in a violent burst, staring up through the windshield.
I started pounding on the dashboard, kicking and screaming.
“Gladys! Stop! GLADYS!” Anna shouted.
“RAWWR!” I roared as I reached over and started slapping away at her like a mad chimp. She slammed on the brakes and tried to pull over but I was all over her. The car ended up rolling over into the ditch with Anna caught in her seat belt. Somehow, I landed in the back. The car was upside down.
After some time with nothing but the sizzle of the blown engine, Anna whispered, “You didn’t kill him, did you?”
“No.” I whispered back.
“You need to disappear.”
“I can’t. I have a sister to kill.”
“Gladys…She’s a Sword. You can’t kill her.”
I squirmed in rolling over to my knees and used the headrest of the front seat to pull myself forward until I was hovering over Anna. “You knew?” I questioned with blood and puke clumped in my hair.
Anna had her eyes closed. She was bleeding from her hairline. I thought she was concussed and half-knocked out, only speaking through some…I don’t know. I can’t explain it.
“Anna, you knew?” I asked again.
She didn’t respond. I reached over and checked her pulse. It was faint. I wasn’t sure how badly she was injured but I knew she needed medical attention. Against my better judgment, I felt her pockets, found her phone, and called for emergency services in a disguised voice.
I had to move quickly, crawling through a window till I was free of the vehicle. With each step I took it felt like fire bursting from my knees. My shoulder was dislocated and I was hunching forward as if strength was no longer in my back.
As I hobbled through the forest with no sense of direction, every turn looked the same. Leaves. Branches. Vines. Gray sky and the nasty feeling when one’s body heat melted with the moist frosty air. That was my current condition. Once again, I dropped to the ground and cried.
…for the last time.
I know it’s cliché. Revenge is always cliché to people who don’t know what it’s like to be driven by it. But for those who are obsessed with it, it’s the strongest motivation on earth.
From that point on, nothing else mattered. The sole meaning of my existence, my impetus, was to inflict the maximum amount of pain on my enemies. I really am a psychopath, the villain in this story. It’s like what Anna told me long ago. We really are monsters. The difference between she and I was that I learned to embrace it.
I survived that day and went into hiding. As per their scheme, I was framed for the murder of my father and hunted by nearly every local, state, and federal law enforcement agency in the country. Clarice even went so far as to place a $5 million bounty on my head, as if that’d stop me.
I had no doubt that the Society used Clarice to take over my father’s company. Months after the murder, a scandal broke out that received national coverage. It was alleged that my older brothers had hired hookers and forced them to use cocaine and perform sexual acts during a number of their lavish boardroom meetings. CEOs and shareholders were implicated. My brothers had to step down in disgrace, prompting Clarice to take the leadership role.
She’d go on to establish a number of influential foundations to raise money for victims of sexual abuse, single mothers, and spread awareness about the acceptance of lewd and insidious behavior that goes on behind the closed doors of corporations. She was the beautiful face, the strong voice, the glamorous poster child with promise to one day enter the political arena.
Tragically, my two eldest brothers killed themselves from the scandal and three more had become degenerate alcoholics to cope with depression. As far as I knew, my other sisters Emily and Victoria were innocent. They even spoke up on behalf of the youngest brother, Gregory. They vouched for his character and claimed he’d never mistreated women as his accusers alleged. But Clarice sided with the accusers and condemned Emily and Victoria as women who were too blinded by familial ties to see the truth. Even their careers took a hit as Clarice made calls to block investments to anyone who would hire them.
Clarice Vandelay had become the Queen of Wall Street. More than that, she was a Sword of St. Catherine. I didn’t know who her paramour was, I didn’t know if it was difficult to complete the initiation, but none of that mattered. She killed Papa. For that, she must die. All the money in the world won’t stop me.
…The Perennial War of Paramours…