How to escape a cult, or not


Dark blood slips down my arm. It pricks between discomfort and pain, swirling sensations together until I can’t distinguish any thoughts besides a desire for more. I squeeze my fingers together, and a new wave of blood gushes from the ritual cut on my arm. The warmth drips off my fingertips and splashes into a paint bucket. Gore colors the white paint, soon to be used for the next Carnegie production.

You might be wondering how I got myself into this. Well, my first week of school was lonely and isolated.

Seriously, my teachers didn’t even have me in their grade book because they didn’t realize I was actually there. An active intruder alert was called when I entered the building late. The front office ladies later sent their apologies, but they just didn’t realize I was a student.

But halfway through the second week, I heard the faint noise of crying coming from the arts building. I decided to follow in hopes of finding a new friend. You know, I’d console them, they’d be thankful, we could get to know each other and I’d have at least one person to talk to.

Instead, when I walked into the building I was met with a man who looked like an even gayer James Corden wearing an “I <3 Yale” shirt.

Something was instantly off. There was a different air inside the arts building than there was in the rest of the school. Most of Carnegie crushes you with the pressure of parental dreams, but the arts building was lighter, almost delirium-inducing. It was a weird mix of passion, paranoia, and paint fumes.

“Brooke. I’ve been waiting for you.”

“How do you know my name?”

“Don’t ask questions.”

“ Ok.”

“Have you ever heard of Carnegie’s theatre department?”

I had. In eighth grade I went to see their winter show, which was completely silent and featured a half-naked elderly man silently screaming the pledge of allegiance. I still don’t know whether that was part of the play or not. It was described by CNN as “the only show that will make you hate high school theater even more.”

Also, my sister’s old best friend used to come to our house covered in scratches, bruise marks, and holes in her hands from where the drill had missed the screws. When I asked her about it, she would just respond, “We shouldn’t talk about Carnegie Theatre.” One week she went missing. I hadn’t seen her since.

In school, things are a little different. Everyone says it’s a cult. I don’t know if I should believe everyone.

I nodded.

“Auditions are today, after school. You should come. You would make a great Thespian, and we need you.”

Need? I liked feeling important. Wanted.

I showed up after school.

Joining a cult is surprisingly easy. I mean, all I did was audition. And really, it’s not as weird as people made it out to be. I found a couple human skeletons under our stage last week, but I’m sure those are props and sure, when the pink-haired stage manager calls me one of her “precious babies” I’m a little off put, but … she’s just quirky. I actually wouldn’t even call it a cult, I’d call it a family. One. Big. Happy. Family. Full of love and family traditions.

For example, did you know that there’s a dead animal hidden in every Carnegie production? It could be in a pot or sewn into the hem of a costume, but lights go up because that animal’s blood has watered the floorboards.

The rituals before a show are my favorite. We unify our thoughts by chanting in unison, stomping a rhythmic beat loud enough the building shakes. Afterwards, we stare into each others’ eyes and drift into their minds. It really creates a great headspace for the show.

I especially love the two weeks a month that we don’t leave the theatre building. It has everything we need, and there’s something refreshing about being close to the energy center for long periods of time. We turn pale from the lack of sunlight and oxygen, and come out with a new appreciation for the world.

But with traditions come secrets.

Gore colors the white paint, soon to be used for the next Carnegie production.

I look up, relieved and exhilarated. I’ve done it. I’ve finally found it. Finally, there is somewhere that I belong. And now that I have done my part, I will be able to belong here forever.

In the stage manager’s hand rests a chalice with chipped golden paint and cheap party city rhinestones. She walks closer to me, dipping it in the now tainted paint, and puts the cup in my hand. Her hands grasp my jaw tight and pull it open. As she does so, a new set of hands grab mine and guide the chalice to my lips.

I swallow. That’s all I know.

A gust of wind cracks across my face. I’m awake.

I am definitely not in the theater room anymore. My arms have been crossed against my chest by some other person. My back is pinned in a little crevice between the plants and sidewalk of our green roof. The sky is pitch black, which it definitely wasn’t when I drank the goblet, that must have been hours ago.

I struggle to my feet. I have to find something, anything to help me find out what the hell I am doing here.

When I brace my palm against the ground, something crumples beneath it. Taped on one of the pavement blocks near me is a note that reads:

You thought that was it? We’re the top theater company in Texas, and your journey has only begun. For your final initiation, your task is simple: survive. You have seven minutes to hide, forty minutes for us to seek, and seven minutes to get revenge. Your time starts now. 

For a moment, I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. Is an extracurricular really worth this? Then I think about the line on my college resume and I realize that it has to be.

But how am I supposed to survive the next hour with nothing but a measly note on me, and why would my new family decide to put me through this?

Don’t ask questions. It’ll be worth it. I’m sure. By the end of the night I will be a true Thespian.

A tone sounds through the school. My seven minutes has filtered away from me faster than falling sand. It’s started.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a pink head of hair that I know could only belong to one person. The scent of performative activism and fat loss tea clogs my nose. The stage manager, who has the personality of a Buzzfeed article, is here.

“Anybody here?” she sings.

I quickly duck down and try to evaluate my conditions. She’s about 10 feet away now, but in maybe a minute she’ll be able to see me. And I can’t kill her, she’s my family, but maybe, just to survive, I can slow her down a little.

As she gets closer I try to rustle a cement block out from the garden. It’s a long shot, but if I can just get this out, I can throw it at her stomach, and that will injure her enough that she won’t be able to play the rest of the game. Her steps get louder and louder and louder.

They stop.

I look up and she’s snickering, leaning over me. “You are terrible at this!” she laughs, a very maniacal laugh, while balancing a long rapier casually in her hand.

I always thought that was just a prop.

“You know, most freshmen at least try to survive five minutes.”

The cement block is in my hand, but instead of throwing it, I close my eyes and bash it as hard as I can, right on her left foot.

“OWWW!!!!” she screams, and it is louder than anytime she has ever been onstage.

I seize the rapier from her hand and back away from her. As I do so, she edges the block off her foot and I can see that her white shoes are now seeping with dark blood. She limps up to me, lunging for my throat in slow motion. “I am going to kill you, you little sh-”


I hit her with the butt of the sword.


I hit her again.

Times passes. I’ve made refuge in the one place none of them would think to go: the gym storage. UIL set pieces are stored here, but they’re kept far away from the main building so we don’t have to think about them. I haven’t actually been in the school in god knows how long, but to my surprise not a lot has changed.

My mind wanders. I find myself thinking of my sister’s friend and her mysterious disappearance. Only now, it’s not so mysterious. It was also her freshman year when she started showing up to my house with bruises and it was about this time of year when me and my sister stopped seeing her all together. She must’ve been in the same position as me, only she lost.

I don’t know how sure I am of my new family anymore. I’ve never heard of families drugging each other, and I’ve certainly never heard of them hunting each other. Actually, now that I think about it, this is so crazy that it sounds like it could be made into a crappy lifetime movie about some college cult.


Cult. Just like they said.

Oh my god, I am in a cult. I am in a cult and it’s not just any cult, it’s a theatre cult full of actual murders. Oh my god. This is like the Manson Family.

I look around at the corner I’ve crammed myself into, boxed in by sticky gray set pieces and wince.

Nevermind. The Manson family never had to deal with this crap.

A tone sounds through the school. The first tone signaled the end of my first seven minutes, so this must be the end of my forty. What was it the note said? Revenge?

I want revenge. I want them to feel the same fear I’ve felt. I want it more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my life.

And after I get it, I’ll just walk away.

I unfold and crawl out of the storage room. I don’t have long.

The stage manager is still in the garden where I left her, scrabbling uselessly at the doors to the science hallway. I pick up the cement brick I’d abandoned last time. Some rush of adrenaline makes it easy.

“Come on,” she pleads, “don’t do this. You don’t need revenge. You don’t need any of this. You don’t have to be a Thespian.”

I glance out at the city, the hazy night and traffic lights. I could walk away. I could see my family. I could go home.

But maybe… maybe this cult isn’t so bad after all.

I bend down next to her, balancing the concrete brick precariously over her forehead and kneeling on her chest. She’s whimpering, and I can’t help but find it a little pathetic. I’ll be a much better stage manager than her, I decide. I won’t be weak.

“Theatre,” I whisper, “is a dying art anyway.”