The rain fell steadily on his plain black umbrella as it had done whenever he’d been out that day. Another typical Vancouver winter day—no surprises there. The Victoria Drive trolley bus had been moist and steamy; all the windows were speckled with condensation, and rivulets of water trickled down the runnels on the rubber floor mat. Rick had dismounted at Vanness and turned down Stainsbury to walk to his basement suite. That’s when he noticed them, parked across the street.
There must be two men in that car, Rick thought, as he descended the concrete stairs to the walkway that ran alongside the aging two-story house. The flat cream paint on the door frame was starting to peel, revealing spots of bright yellow enamel underneath. They must be either PIs hired by the Guardsmen’s Office or they’re Guardsmen themselves. Probably PIs, judging from the cigarette. Real Thanatologists don’t smoke.
Rick folded his umbrella and set it down while he fumbled for his key. When he put it into the lock, his hands were trembling. Inside, the suite smelled moldy and damp, as usual. He tossed his coat on the kitchen table and let himself sink down into the ageing armchair in the main room. But as soon as he sat down, he noticed the light blinking on his answering machine. Blink, blink, blink. Three messages.
After the tape rewound, he heard a firm female voice. Linda from the Guardsmen’s Office. “Rick, we know you’re there. Did you think you could blow and we wouldn’t find you? You know better than that. We’ve put out an Oppressive Person proclaim on you, Rick. You’re an OP. You know what that means.” Beep.
Rick knew what that meant.
Linda again. “Rick, we know you copied files before you blew. You’ve got to give those back. Those are copyrighted materials. They belong to the Guardsman’s Office. Remember, everything belongs to TFS.” Beep.
An old Thanatology slogan. Everything belongs to TFS—T. Frank Sheppard. The author of a series of dungeons-and-dragons fantasy novels who had spun his fantasies into a New Age religion. A religion that he, Rick Saunders, had followed for seven years, even rising to the rank of Colonel in the Guardsmen.
The next voice was familiar. Rick had left a message on his voicemail a few hours before. “Mr. Saunders, this is Damian Lawson with the Vancouver Province. You left a message about having some information on the Church of Thanatology? You said you could show me some of those files they keep on former members. I’m very interested. If you want to call me in the evening you can reach me at home.” Then he gave his home number. Beep.
Rick considered erasing the tape and not calling back, but he stopped and jotted down the number. Did he dare call?
The idea to leave had come over him suddenly. One day he knew he couldn’t take it any more. The games of intimidation he had to play with members who had left, or were wavering. The files he kept on everyone, their stats, what courses they had taken and what level they had risen to. The people he had sent to RPC—Re-education Program Corps—as a form of punishment, and the time that he himself was sent to RPC when his stats were poor for a month. That time, they’d busted his rank to sergeant and ordered him to clean the floor of the Guardsman’s Office every day for two weeks, with a toothbrush.
But if he called Lawson, the intimidation would get worse. They’d call his employer, say he was crazy or a drug addict. They’d tell Lawson the same things. They’d broadcast it far and wide that this Rick Saunders who was saying bad things about the Church of Thanatology was really just a lonely, pathetic, mentally unstable loser.
And then the lawsuits would start. They’d sue him even if they had no chance of winning. They’d sue him just because it would cost him time and money to get the lawsuits dismissed. They would do everything in their power to destroy him, because now he’d been proclaimed an OP, and an OP was fair game.
Suddenly Rick remembered a face—a haggard, intense face begging Rick to leave him alone. Pondrachuk. Peter Pondrachuk, the last OP to whom Rick had been assigned. He’d known Peter slightly; they’d taken some courses together when they were both new to Thanatology. One time their mentor assigned them the task of staring into each other’s eyes for an hour without blinking. They weren’t supposed to say anything or do anything, just stare. It was supposed to clear your blockages so the evaluator could tell you what your problems were. They made it about half way before Peter couldn’t help looking away. He laughed and shrugged when he did it. “You got me, Rick,” he said. “You’re one tough dude, I’ll tell you that.” Peter was a good guy—for a while there, at the beginning, they’d almost been friends. Then he blew. That was bad enough, but he made it worse when he started talking to this reporter, this Lawson guy from the Province. So the word came down to the Guardsmen’s Office: Get Pondrachuk.
Rick found him hiding out in Surrey, in his stepfather’s basement suite. For two weeks, Rick and Linda Harper, both trusted Guardsmen who often worked together, kept watch in the street outside his house. During the long boring hours when nothing much was happening, they played games like “I Spy” just to stay awake. Or one of them would read aloud from a T. Frank Sheppard novel or a Thanatology text while the other kept watch. Linda even told jokes sometimes—she had a whole routine, and her timing was dead on. Rick’s sides ached from laughing. But whenever Peter came out of the house, they zipped their lips and got down to business.
As soon as Peter appeared, Rick or Linda would get out of the car and start taking snapshots. Or they would follow behind him, videotaping him as he walked down the street. That was all. They weren’t supposed to touch him, just scare him.
Peter was easy to scare. By the end of two weeks, he was a wreck. He stopped going to work and just hid out in his suite. Every so often they’d see the curtains part on his basement window, and might just glimpse the light glinting off his spectacles. He knew they were out there, and that made him afraid to even come out. When he finally did, he looked like he hadn’t showered for a week. He shambled over to their car, though he stopped several times on the way and looked down abstractedly before continuing. Arriving at the driver’s side window, he glanced at Rick only once, with a shock of recognition. Then he looked away.
“Please.” He flapped his hands wildly as if shooing away insects. “Please—just go away. I won’t talk to that reporter anymore. Please leave me alone. Please.”
Rick could hardly look at him. Linda leaned across Rick from the passenger’s seat and spoke up. “You’re not going to say anything more to anyone about Thanatology; am I right, Peter?”
He took one brief, frightened look in Linda’s direction, then looked away again.
“If you do, we’ll come back.”
“I … won’t … say anything,” Peter mumbled.
While they were driving back to the Guardsmen’s Office, Linda kept looking over at Rick sharply. He knew she was upset with him for not speaking up to Peter. Finally she came out with it.
“You got a problem handling OPs, Rick?” He knew he was in trouble then. Linda would report him and he might end up on RPC, or worse. They might bust him down to buck private or order him to repeat all his courses, which means he’d have to pay for them again. Two days later, he blew.
Rick stood up and hauled his wooden kitchen chair over to one of the small rectangular windows through which light from the street trickled into his basement suite. By standing on the chair he could just see the street and the rain slanting down in the glow of the streetlight. The PIs were still there. One of them was still smoking; he could see the faint glow on the driver’s side. They were undoubtedly bored—their purpose was just to send him a message, a warning. Should he go and confront them? But if he did, what would he say?
Let them stew, he decided. Rick got down off the chair and returned it to the kitchen. He opened the fridge and peered in, looking for a beer. One left. No sooner had he popped the tab than the phone rang.
“Rick, is everything all right?” It was Sally, his sister in North Van.
“Yes, I’m fine. Why, what’s up?”
“There were some strange guys here this afternoon asking questions. They didn’t look like Thanatologists. They were just sort of creepy. I told them I didn’t know where you live.”
“They were PIs, probably. Don’t worry; they’re not going to do anything. They’re just trying to send a message.”
“Listen, Rick. Maybe you should get out of Vancouver. Why don’t you go back to Hundred Mile House or something?”
“Go back and live with Mom and Dad? At my age?”
“Well, you’ve got to do something. I’m scared, Rick. I don’t want to have any more strange guys coming around here when Andrew’s at work. And what about you? Have they found you yet?”
Rick pressed the cold beer can to his forehead to help him think. He didn’t want to frighten Sally any further. Should he tell her? Things were only going to get worse if he called Lawson. “Yeah, they found me. About a week ago.”
Sally was silent for a moment. “Well, just—just—don’t take any—I’m—I just want you to be careful, okay? We all need you, Rick. Bobby says you’re his favorite uncle.”
Rick snorted, but felt pleased. “That’s not saying much, since Andrew’s brothers all live in Toronto. I have an unfair advantage.”
“Rick, you know what I mean! He adores you. You take care of yourself.”
They rang off. Rick thought about how he used to amuse his nephew on his visits, even when he was a Guardsman. While Sally was making dinner and Andrew was whipping up his special salad, Rick would be in the driveway with Bobby, pretending to be a goalie while the boy lobbed tennis balls at him with his hockey stick. Rick stopped a few but he always let enough go by that Bobby could feel he was NHL material. During those visits, Rick felt relief, as if for once he could put aside the strident intensity of his life as a Guardsman and be himself again.
Rick finished the beer in three quick gulps. Then he dragged the chair over to the window again to take another look. Still there. That settled it. If he didn’t stand up to the Church of Thanatology now, who was going to make sure that Bobby didn’t end up going through the same thing in twenty years’ time?
Crossing over to the phone, he picked up the slip of paper with the reporter’s phone number on it, and noticed that his hand was shaking a little. “O.K., Mr. Lawson,” he muttered aloud, gulping back his nervousness as he dialed. “Let’s play ball.”
K. Gordon Neufeld, M.F.A., is the author of Heartbreak and Rage: Ten Years Under Sun Myung Moon, A Cult Survivor’s Memoir. He was a member of the Unification Church from 1976 to 1986. Following his departure from the group, he graduated from the University of British Columbia Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. His opinion piece about the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s mass marriages appeared in First Things magazine in January, 2003. He has read from his work three times at ICSA conference Phoenix Project exhibits. “Living Water” (a story read at ICSA’s 2010 annual conference) will be published in The Windsor Review in the Spring 2011 issue. He is working on a novel and a collection of short stories. Mr. Neufeld now lives with his wife and step-daughter near Schenectady, New York.