“Prophet” is Jennifer Bosworth’s first published short work and serves as a prequel to her debut novel Struck, out on May 8th from Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. You can also catch Jennifer out on the Fierce Reads tour next month!
Some men are born monsters . . . others are made so. In “Prophet,” Rance Ridley, the teenage son of a cult leader, lives on an isolated compound, disconnected from modern civilization. There is no running water. No electricity. And no law but the Prophet’s. When Rance is caught in an act of flagrant disobedience, his father delivers the ultimate punishment.
“Prophet” is a disturbing glimpse into the past of the villain of Jennifer Bosworth’s debut novel, Struck.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Farrar, Straus & Giroux editor Janine O’Malley.
The day Rance Ridley kissed a girl for the first time, his father revealed the exact date of the end of the world.
The girl’s name was Olivia.
Later, Rance wondered if his father would have seen “the end” if he hadn’t caught his son lying in the field with Olivia, her lips kissed to the color of crushed strawberries.
The two of them were thirteen. They’d known each other since they were babies, born only two days apart in the compound of the Church of Light. But Olivia’s mother abandoned her before she was weaned, disappearing from the compound as suddenly as she had appeared back when she was pregnant and destitute. Rance’s mother took Olivia in and acted as wet nurse to the baby girl, raised her as Rance’s sister. Perhaps that was why his father’s face turned red with fury when he found them and saw the way Olivia’s demure white blouse was unbuttoned, pulled loose from her long skirt. Or perhaps it was simply because Prophet Ram Ridley claimed that a kiss shared before marriage was an affront to the Almighty and should be punished accordingly.
The prophet caught Olivia by her hair and Rance by the back of his neck, and held them apart. Olivia’s wheat-colored eyes were huge with fear, and Rance knew his father was hurting her as he wrapped her endless hair in his fist, reeling her in. Olivia’s shirt hung open, revealing most of one small, white breast.
“My own son,” the prophet sputtered, his face now the color of a bruise. “You defile the purity of this child.”
“Father, we were only––” Rance began to say, but the prophet yanked Olivia’s hair so violently a sob flew from her throat. Rance hadn’t seen Olivia cry since she was a little girl. She had always been strong. It was one of the things Rance loved about her. One of the many things.
“I taught you better than this,” the prophet said to his son. “What will your punishment be, eh? The belt? Or shall it be the cellar this time?”
Rance felt his palms go clammy. He had never done anything bad enough to warrant confinement in the cellar beneath the church, but he’d heard stories from those who had spent days locked in the dark with the dead. That’s where the compound cemetery was located, in the large cellar beneath a church so white it hurt Rance’s eyes to look upon it, where those who died could forever hear the songs and prayers of the Followers of the Light. The earthen floor of the cellar was damp and loose, and those who spent too much time below the church felt themselves sinking into the ground, like the dead were drawing them slowly into the soil.
Worst of all, and to his shame, Rance was terrified of the dark, and had been for as long as he could remember. He always slept with an oil lamp burning, and he longed every night for electricity.
Rance would never be sorry for what he and Olivia had done that day in the waving summer grass of the field, and he knew lying was an unforgivable sin, but the mere thought of being locked in the cellar made him quake. So he hung his head and lied. “I’m sorry, father. It will never happen again. I deserve the belt.”
“You’ve had the belt before,” his father said. “It seems not to have made an impression on you. A day or two in the cellar should remedy that.”
“No!” Olivia cried. She knew better than anyone how terrified Rance was of the dark. She understood, and did not judge him. “Prophet, I must confess. I brought Rance to the field. I tempted him. Punish me instead. Rance is good, and I . . . I am a wicked girl. I should be taught a lesson.”
The prophet considered, frowning. And then he released Rance’s neck and shoved him away. But he kept hold of Olivia’s hair, and a smile bent his lips.
To Rance, it seemed as though he were the only one who could hear Olivia through the floorboards as the white-clad Followers sang their evening hymns. On the Church of Light’s compound, worship services were held three times a day. First at sunrise. Then again at noon. And again at the close of day.
Olivia had been locked in the cellar for five hours, and she was still screaming to be let out. Rance wanted more than anything to go to her, to rescue her from the darkness his father had sentenced her to for three days and three nights without food or water. But if he openly defied the prophet he would end up in the dark himself.
We could run away, Rance thought. I could rescue Olivia and together we could leave this place.
But where would they go? How would two thirteen-year-olds survive in a world neither of them had ever been part of? And how long would it be before Ram Ridley sent a team of Followers to drag the two of them back to the compound?
No, Rance could not save the girl he loved. All he could do was sit with his people and sing loudly enough that he couldn’t hear her cries.
But when the song ended and there was a moment of silence before the prophet began his evening sermon, Rance heard what Olivia said.
“Rance, pleeeease! Make them let me out! I’m scared!”
A few eyes flitted toward him, and Rance felt his cheeks go red with shame. He was the prophet’s son. He was supposed to set an example for the conduct of others, but instead he had let himself be tempted by a girl. No, a woman now. Olivia was thirteen. She had breasts, and she had told him herself that she’d begun to bleed. She was now capable of bearing children. If things had gone too far in the field, Rance might have been the one to get her with child. A kiss before marriage was an affront to God, but a child born out of wedlock . . . no matter how much he repented, Rance would never be washed clean of that sin. It was too great.
Rance had thought that Olivia was lying to protect him when she told the prophet she had purposely tempted Rance. But perhaps she was telling the truth. Suppose she’d intended to exploit the weakness all men felt in the presence of women.
“My dearest Followers,” the prophet boomed out in the chapel. He stood behind the podium and grasped the edges with his hands as though to keep himself from falling over. His face was pale, but his eyes were bright and reflective, like pond water when the moon shines off it. “I have had a revelation,” the prophet told them. “The end is nigh. I have seen it, a storm the likes of which has not been seen since the days of Noah and the flood. But from this storm there will be no ark to carry us away. This shall be a storm of judgment.” The prophet’s eyes, burning now, found his son. “Only those who are without sin shall be saved.”
The storm, his father said, would arrive in three days.
On the third evening, the Followers gathered in the Church of Light, and, as Prophet Ram Ridley had predicted, the rains came.
But Rance was not impressed with God’s cleansing storm. It started as a light sprinkle of drops, more like a mist than actual rain. But the mist soon became a downpour. Still, it was only rain. Just a summer storm, the kind that usually ended before it began.
But it didn’t end.
As water drummed on the roof, the Followers sang their songs. They prayed. Prophet Ridley sermonized and whipped his people into a frenzy, and then they sang some more. Rance could not keep his eyes from the windows. He kept waiting for the rain to stop, but it went on and on.
While lightning split the sky in a hundred places and thunder pounded their eardrums, the Followers around him stomped and threw their hands in the air and praised God. They basked in His glory, but Rance could not think about God. All he could think about was Olivia in the cellar, cold and alone in the terrible darkness. Shivering and wet and––
Rance thought back to the last time there’d been a hard rain. The cellar had flooded. And that storm had been nothing compared to what they were experiencing now.
Rance ran from the chapel and burst out into the pouring rain. Droplets smacked his cheeks like pellets and burst apart. He was instantly soaked from head to foot. He heard his father shouting for him to get back inside, but for once he ignored the prophet. He slammed the church doors shut and rammed the only thing he could find, a piece of broken two-by-four, through the handles.
It wouldn’t keep his father and the Followers inside long, but it gave him time.
Rance sprinted around to the side of the church where the cellar door was located. But he should have paused to think before rushing out into the rain. The cellar was padlocked.
Rance pounded on the wooden doors. “Olivia! Can you hear me! Please answer!”
No sound. And no time to wait for it.
Rance had to break through the door before his father and the Followers stopped him. Before Olivia drowned in the cellar. Before the buried dead were washed loose from their graves, and Olivia floated with them. In the dark. In the dark, where he must go to save her.
“Rance!” He heard his father’s distant voice. “You stop this! I command it! God must judge us all! He must judge us all!”
Another bolt of lightning drew a jagged line across the clouds, illuminating, for a moment, a shovel lying against the wall of the nearby toolshed. Rance slipped and skidded through the mud and snatched it up.
He raised it high above his head and brought it down on the padlock. It did not break. He tried again. Nothing.
He pictured Olivia’s golden-green eyes and sun-bright hair in his mind, and raised the shovel once more before bringing it down with every ounce of strength he had.
He felt the charge before he really felt it. It tugged at his hair and woke his nerve endings and made his heart stutter.
The lightning filled him, washed everything to perfect, pristine white. Washed away Olivia’s face.
Rance had never been in a hospital, not even when he was born. So when he opened his eyes and found himself in an all-white room with white sheets pulled to his chest, he wondered if he had died. His vision was blurry, which made everything around him appear soft, heavenly. He blinked a hundred times, but the blurriness remained, as though he were looking through a sheet of ice.
Monitors beeped at a slow, steady pace. Rance began to remember what had happened before everything turned white: the storm and his attempt to free Olivia from the cellar, how he’d raised the shovel above his head, turning himself into a perfect lightning rod.
And the lightning had come for him. Come to judge him.
The beeping became faster and faster. Rance’s right hand began to feel hot to the point of pain, tingling with a fidgety, electric feeling.
He held his right hand before his eyes and saw, through the filmy veil that obscured his vision, veins of red on the palm of his hand, like it had been drizzled in blood.
There was a pounding in his head, a buzzing in his ears, and then a voice spoke so clearly inside his mind that Rance thought at first there must be someone else in the room.
Now you bear the mark. There is great work ahead for you. Gather your Apostles, for you are the new prophet of the Church of Light. The power is in your hands, and with your hands you must do the work of God.
Footsteps. Three indistinct figures entered, and the voice ceased speaking.
“He’s awake,” a woman said, and began touching him, checking the needle he hadn’t even realized was in his arm until she jostled it.
“There’s something wrong with his eyes.” His father’s voice filled the room, always deep and booming, the way it was when he gave a sermon.
“I’m afraid he’s developing cataracts,” another man said. His coat was white, but not his pants. They were black. He was no Follower. “It’s not a common aftereffect of being struck by lightning, but it has been known to happen.”
“His hair . . . when will its color return?”
His hair? What was wrong with his hair? Rance wished for a mirror.
“We don’t know,” the white-coated man answered.
“I thought you people were supposed to have all the answers,” the prophet said, a sneer in his voice. “What about that mark on his hand? What of that?”
“Lichtenberg figures,” said the man in the white coat. “Also caused by the lightning. But they should fade in a few days. The cataracts are . . . another matter.”
Rance spoke then, and his voice reminded him of his father’s. It carried a certainty he’d never had before. “I see more now than I ever could before,” he told the room. Then he directed his milky eyes toward his father. His father’s face was nothing but a smear of features.
“Tell me Prophet,” Rance said. “What became of Olivia?”
She’s dead,that voice whispered in his mind again. Strangely, he was already growing used to it. And already he trusted it. She’s dead, and it was this self-proclaimed prophet who took her from you. He is a false prophet, who declared an end that did not come. God does not speak to him. Your father’s time is past. You must remove him.
Rance couldn’t agree more.
Rance Ridley took the podium for the first time the day after his father’s body was found in the cellar. Apparently the former prophet had tripped and fallen down the steep steps and knocked himself out. He suffocated in the dark with his face shoved into the mud that remained from the rains and the flooding.
“My Followers,” Rance said to his congregation. “God sent his light into me the night of the storm, to chase away all darkness. He judged me and found me not wanting, but the same cannot be said of my father, the false prophet Ram Ridley. Let us not mourn the passing of the man who called himself prophet, when God never did. I have heard the voice of God. I have felt his light.”
He gazed out at his people, a blur of perfect white. For a moment, he tried to picture Olivia’s face, but he found it was already fading.
He blinked back tears and said what the voice had told him to say.
“God has chosen me, Rance Ridley, to be your one true prophet.”
“Prophet” copyright © 2011 by Jennifer Bosworth
Art copyright © 2011 by Nekro