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My partner, Ester, deposits a coffee in my hand.
The cup eclipses my view of the Robot, but she is still in the same spot when it moves away. Tense in the chair. Her dark eyes downcast. Her mouth pulled into a thin line. Hands clasped on her knees. Default setting. The cold glow of the florescent light veining her rigid frame.
My coworkers and I, we call them Robots; metallic, distant, products of their creators and hours of fine-tuning.
I take another swig of my coffee. The bitterness coats my tongue.
I think of Geppetto, the toymaker who created Pinocchio, the liar. He carved him in hopes to have another good human in the world.
We cut Pinocchio's strings every day. Women, men, children, who were toys to their Geppetto. This one is Flora Sharpe, our Robot, a recent extraction of Adam Braun’s cult, aptly called, Achor.
I can hear my cohorts pant from bringing her in, filling the air with their hot breath, replacing the Robot's screams that had filled the room only a few minutes ago. She was wired, throwing her body against broad men, slamming her head into theirs, her black eyes shining in feral, her teeth bared, she bit into one man's shoulder, tears forming in her eyes as she clenched harder into bone. The droplets still glittered on the linoleum between me and Ester's shoes.
Now, she sat, demure.
"Horace," hisses Ester.
I look down at her. She is tense, her eyes ahead - as if there is a deer that has intersected our path. I sigh. I have seen so many deer and they always run. We cannot be friends, no matter how much we try and how many times we wish we weren't human.
Ester scrapes her nails across her cup, eyes stuck on the Robot. She bites her lip.
My eyes drift to the Robot. The Styrofoam whines as my fingers flex tight around it.
The Robot has her eyes closed. Her lips flutter with small words.
Signs of malfunction.
"Follow," I say. I take a shot of the coffee before striding into the examination room, Ester on my heels, our footfall synchronized as if we are one, shadow and man.
The Robot whispers on, her lips making a new shape every second, as if she doesn't want us to decode the prayer.
My voice booms against the walls as I ask, "Who are you praying for?"
The Robot's hushed voice gets louder. She tucks her chin into her chest, shutting her eyes tighter.
I slam my hand against the table. The metal makes a clang from the strike.
Ester doesn't stir.
The Robot jolts, her black eyes flash onto me. She mutters on, her jaw clenched. I imagine that the deer Ester saw before us has teeth, baring at the evolution of humans, prey no more.
I slam my hand on the tabletop again. The Robot slouches, glaring up at me. The hooves of this deer have a shine to them, the same cadence as knives.
"Who are you pray-,"
"You! I pray for you!" she screams, shooting up from her seat. Her hands gripped the table. Her chest heaves from the weight of the confession. Her eyebrows furrow, making her dark eyes darker. Her hands flex as they hold onto the edge of the table, unsure of the stability behind it.
I look from her fingers to her face. I see the muscle in the Robot's jaw flex as she breaks down the question. Her nostrils flare as she exhales. Ester sits down at the table and looks over the Robot's file. The Robot withdraws from the table, giving Ester a careful glance. The deer wants to retain the distance.
I say, "Why?"
The Robot flinches, and her lips pull back into a snarl. Her eyes flick from Ester to me. Her nose wrinkles at Ester, who was skimming over her information, ignoring her gaze.
I say, "Why are you praying for me?"
The Robot inhales. Her glossed eyes roll to me. She spits, "You are damned."
Ester clicks her tongue. The Robot flexes her hands, the same manor a deer freezes as a branch snap. The Robot glares up at me. Her eyes shift between us.
"No, I am not," I say, my voice even. I am taking a step toward the creature, keeping its eyes on me. A paper hisses as Ester lolls through the report, keeping to her post.
The Robot's eyes sink into me.
"You. Are. Damned," she whispers. "The people behind that mirror are too."
I imagine the bruised agents eying each other behind the mirror, holding their breath in case the Robot can fly through the glass unscathed.
I slam the tabletop. The Robot winces.
"No one is damned in this room," I say.
"No! No!" The Robot shakes her head, her hair flying over her shoulders, lying on her shirt in dark contortions. She leans into me, her eyes shining and reflective, the mask of an animal pulling against a trap.
"I am damned. You are damned. She is damned. We are all damned."
"Who is saying that to you?"
"The Lord says it," she says. She gives a glance to the concrete ceiling.
"From Adam Braun's mouth," I say. Ester raises her head to watch the Robot, her fingers hooked on the edge of a page.
The whites of the Robot’s eyes halo her irises as she screams, "He speaks for Him!"
My breath is hot as I say, "No! A man speaks for himself, only himself -what has he said to you?"
The Robot shudders. The cogs are jamming. She shakes her head. Her eyes break from me, and look down at the floor. She is shutting down. She mutters a prayer. I hear a saint referenced, but I am not familiar with them anymore. Atheism a frequent practice in our field.
Adam Braun stood in his compound and told people who were at the end of their ropes that he was Salvation. Adam John Braun, 36, from Bird in Hand, Pennsylvania, found his roost in the Cumberland Valley, and made his trouble in it.
I say, “What do the Good Lord and Adam say?”
The Robot’s body betrays her, she winces. Tears are brimming in her eyes. She is shorting out. The Robot is unable to process herself. Her eyebrows fret. She begins a prayer. Her fingers itch at the fabric of her pants. Tears are washing down her face. She mutters on. She struggles to say, “Heaven,” but she shakes her head and says it. The tears are staining the neck of her shirt. The metal paneling is breaking away from her. I see glimpses of her past between the gaps; a woman who went to coffee houses every morning to keep her mind off of failure, a sketchbook of tattoos on her nightstand, barefooted walks in the grass, wildflowers in her vases everyday.
Signs of life shining through, now, we can rewire her system, if she stays vulnerable.
I say, evenly, “What did they say?”
“We are damned, and we must work to get into Heaven,” she whimpers, her eyes find Ester’s who has been studying the messages of muscles pass across the Robot’s face for a few moments now. The Robot squeezes the edge of the table. She looks from her chipped fingers to Ester, she mutters, “I have to put in my part. Or God will not have me.”
"What is your part?”
Ester’s words are like stacking stones in a hand, careful, weighed.
The Robot doesn’t look away from Ester. She leans in. The Robot senses hope. Her hands inch forward, filling the metallic distance between the women.
A fret cinches my stomach. Bitterness foams behind my molars.
The Robot sniffs. She has not looked away from Ester. Tears are brimming her eyes.
“I help him,” she whispers.
Ester’s hands wash over the Robot’s, she tenses, but doesn’t move away.
Ester frets her eyebrows at the Robot, looking up with concern, “What do you help him with?”
The Robot eyes us.
“I help him,” she says.
Ester squeezes the Robot’s hands. The Robot wilts.
“Help us, from being damned,” Ester says, pulling in the Robot’s attention. She nods at her. The Robot exhales, she sits a little taller.
I look down at Ester, and eye the mirror that frames our profiles. I imagine the other agents inching toward the wall, their breaths fogging the glass.
The Robot whispers, “You want Heaven too?”
Ester nods, “Very much. Please, help us from being damned, help him, by helping us,” she says. She slips the stones she has collected into Adam Braun’s nest, displacing the weight of the Robot’s absence.
The Robot blinks at Ester. She holds onto her hands tighter. Ester doesn’t register, but by how she shifts in her seat, I know that the Robot has a grip on her. The metal paneling on the Robot is starting to fall apart.
The deer is padding past us.
The strings are getting cut from Geppetto’s hand, and she doesn’t know her own strength.
“I help him with his sermons,” The Robot says. She swallows. Her eyebrows fret.
The fret knots deeper, pressing into my gut. I eye the mirror. I feel like I can hear the agents shifting on their feet, pacing in the cage. There are 30 members residing in Achor, mostly women, around Flora’s age.
“How did you get such a job?”
Ester’s voice has lightened from the lack of stones. She squeezes the Robot’s hands. The Robot’s sadness deepens. She focuses on their hands intertwined.
“He loves me most,” The Robot whispers.
I bite my tongue. My lungs stifle from inhaling. I look down at Ester.
Ester pauses, thinking of grabbing another stone. The scales of the bird nest are shifting.
Ester says, “He loves you?”
The Robot nods.
“He does. He said - he sees himself in me. He let me look over the sermons. He said they were from God himself. I saw it myself. Pages and pages of God’s word. Just for him, and me,” the Robot says.
More tears. The Robot breaks away from Ester to wipe them from her face before another glitch. But we already see the wiring from under the metal.
“Flora,” Ester says.
The Robot freezes. Tears drip from her fingers.
“Flora,” Ester repeats. Her voice is round and smooth.
The Robot’s face crumbles, Flora whimpers.
The deer is from the trap, but still, there is a wound she carries. She heels her hands against her temples. Her body shudders as she cries.
Flora Sharpe, 24, she lost her religion and found an idea in Achor. Her parents employed us to collect her when they grew worried from the sudden lack of communication.
She had been in the Robot the whole time, and now, she will be human.
“The Robot” may be a fictional story, but the reality is not. If you know someone who may be a victim of a cult. Click the link below to check out the resources provided by Cult Education. (Linked in text).
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