Ashley Southerly made her entrance onto the stage with a smile on her face as she paraded in front of the four judges. The spangles on her tiara and costume sparkled like an array of diamonds. Even though she had done this many times before, she still had the habit of looking for her mother in the crowd of other parents before focusing her total attention towards the panel of judges. At the ripe old age of four years, Ashley Southerly still relied on her mother’s encouragement at these pageants. Her mother had been entering her in beauty pageants since she was eighteen months old, but Ashley had never
questioned her mother’s decisions in anything. Whenever there was any free time in between pageants, Ashley and her mother spent most of that time deciding on Ashley’s next set of outfits. Ashley really had no friends to speak of; her only contact with children her age were at the pageants and her mother had taught her to think of the other children as “the enemy”. The one time that she had tried to make friends with one of the other girls had been a disaster. Her mother had left Ashley on her own in the dressing room with a girl who was having problems with putting on some cowboy boots and Ashley had offered to help the girl. In the fifteen minutes that both of their mothers had been out of the room, Ashley and Cassie found out that they were both an only child, but that their birthdays were 3 days apart. As Cassie was helping Ashley do her makeup, Ashley’s mother walked in and screamed.
“What are you doing??? Get away from my child!!! Ashley, come to Mama before that girl stabs out one of your eyes with the eyeliner pen!”
At the same time, Cassie’s mother walked in and almost got into a “knock out, drag out” fight with Ashley’s mother. A physical altercation was avoided when one of the pageant coordinators, hearing the screaming, walked into the room and separated the two women. All of the commotion had caused Ashley to break down and cry. By the time that her mother had taken her out of the room and calmed her down, there was not enough time to clean up her face completely and when she went on stage, there was a smudge of mascara on her dress. Ashley ended up in third place, while Cassie won the crown. After this, Ashley’s mother never left her alone when they were at a pageant. Ashley continued to appear in pageants until she turned 21, when she made the one and only major decision in her life. She went to college out of state, thereby finally being free of her mother’s influence.
Unfortunately for Ashley, she was unsure of what she wanted to major in. During her first year, she decided that she would major in Fine Arts. Halfway through the semester, she changed her mind and switched to the Drama department, since she figured that her pageant experiences might come in handy as far as facing an audience was concerned. Her instructor wasn’t very confident about Ashley’s acting ability, but she had to admire her determination. One day, as Ashley was walking across campus to her dorm room, a young man approached her and asked if she would like a free pamphlet. Ashley normally would ignore such people, but she made the fatal mistake of falling in love with the man’s beautiful blue eyes. He said that his name was Damon and that he was a member of the Unified Church of the Stars. At first Ashley thought that he meant “stars” in the sense of famous people, but Damon smiled at her and corrected her. The fact that he had not mocked her for her ignorance further caused Ashley to be enchanted with Damon.
“If you are interested, our group is holding a service tonight at 8 PM in the Chapel.”
“I may show up, if you’ll be there.”
“Oh, I’ll be there. I’m sure that you will find it a very enlightening service.”
“Then I’ll see you tonight.”
Ashley then went to her dorm room, put away her books, and started to read the pamphlet. It told her that the Unified Church of the Stars was started on campus ten years ago by a former Theology student. This student, Charles Harkness, had studied all of the world religions and had been disturbed by the dichotomy (Ashley had to look up this word) between what they taught and what they put into practice. Harkness had discovered that once a religion became “official” it lost its spiritual side and just became a tool of the State. One night as he had been studying for an exam, he fell asleep and had a dream. In his dream, Charles Harkness heard a voice. The voice told him that Mankind would never find their true spirituality as long as they relied on the teachings of Men. He asked the voice who he was and why he did not show himself. The voice replied,:
“I am Vashtu and I am here to lead you to the True Spiritual Path. I can not show myself to you because I am not on your world. I am speaking to you from a planet which revolves around the star that you humans call Spica.”
“But if you are on another planet, how can you speak to me?”
“Our minds have developed the ability to speak across the reaches of space through our science and our following of the True Spiritual Path.”
“How can you understand what I am saying if I, as a human, do not have this ability?”
“You have this ability because we chose you and trained you since your birth. You were not always aware of us, but we were with you.”
“Why have I been chosen and for what purpose.”
“Aeons ago, we discovered your planet and our scientists chose to use you as a laboratory. You, Charles Harkness, have been deemed the most worthy to spread our message of the True Path.”
So, Charles Harkness went on to earn his degree in Theology and, after graduation, set about to learn all that Vashtu could teach him. After a year had gone by, Harkness self-published everything that he had learned and began teaching it to others.
Ashley was skeptical of this story but, because Damon was so handsome, she decided that she would go to the meeting. Ashley didn’t even want to tell her roommate about Damon or where she would be going to that night, because she tended to ridicule people who were overly religious. Besides, Gina , her roommate, would be out partying as usual, and the two girls weren’t really that big of friends. That night, Ashley changed into something that she felt would be appropriate for visiting a chapel, told Gina that she was leaving without waiting for a reply, and made her way to the chapel. Just as she was getting ready to go through the door, she heard her name called. She turned around and saw Damon walking towards her but he was not alone. By his side was a girl with blond hair, and she was holding his hand. Ashley’s happiness at seeing Damon cooled as she inspected the girl by his side.
“Ashley, I’m glad that you could make it. This is my friend, Corrine. Corrine, this is Ashley.”
The two girls sized each other up, fake smiled and nodded to each other.
“Damon, I’ll go get us some seats.” Corinne said and left Ashley and Damon alone.
“Is she your girlfriend?” Ashley asked.
“Not really. We are just friends. We grew up in the same neighborhood together.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” Ashley said with a sigh of relief.
“Shall we go in?”
Ashley and Damon walked into the Chapel and found their seats with Corrine. A man with a dark crew cut and John Lennon glasses walked up to a podium and cleared his throat. Everyone else in the room got quiet. Ashley realized that this was Charles Harkness himself. She sat straight in her chair and listened as he spoke. At first, she was only half listening to what he was saying, but she eventually paid closer attention. When Harkness described some of the messages that Vashtu had given him, Ashley got caught up in his speech. He described his mental visitations with such conviction that by the end of his talk, Ashley had become a disciple. After the meeting was over, Damon and Corrine invited her out for some coffee. She accepted their offer and, once they had got to the Starbucks and got their orders, they sat down at a corner table and talked about what they had just heard. Ashley asked a few questions and Damon, mainly, answered them to her satisfaction. Corrine, who had been carrying a large purse, picked it up, put it on the table and took out a book. She handed it to Ashley and said,
“Here is a copy of Brother Harkness’ book. Take it home with you, read it, and any other questions that you have should be answered. If you look on the first page, you’ll see a reminder of when the meetings are held and my phone number. You can call me if you think of anything else to ask about or if you just want to talk.”
Ashley took the book, did a quick glance at the first page, then closed it and smiled.
“Thank you, I will.”
After finishing their coffees, Damon and Corrine walked Ashley back to her dorm. When she got to her room and noticed that Gina had not returned, she walked over to her desk, turned on the lamp and began to read the book. As she was reading, she came across a chapter which made her stop for a moment. The chapter was titled “Beauty and Its Lies”. In this chapter, Ashley was told that “ the
adoration of beauty leads to vanity which stifles the soul. When the soul is prevented from reaching The True Spiritual Path, the student weakens and communication is denied. To praise someone for their physical appearance is the same as causing them spiritual death. To ignore another person’s physical looks is to set them back on The True Path.” After reading this and thinking back on her childhood experiences, Ashley realized that what Charles Harkness, or Vashtu, was saying was true. Ashley then felt that she had to continue her reading in order to find out how to get on The True Spiritual Path. Ashley had not even noticed when Gina returned to the room since she was so enraptured with what she was reading.
“Are you going to bed soon?” Gina said with a yawn.
Ashley then noticed Gina, looked at the clock and seeing that it said 2:00 AM, closed the book and turned out the light.
“I’m sorry, but I got so involved in this great book.”
Gina just smiled and went into the restroom to change. Ashley put the book into her backpack, changed into her pink pajamas, and turned out the light on her nightstand. Ashley had trouble getting to sleep due to the excitement racing through her mind. She had never really been one to think about religion or any other serious subject before. All of her life, she had been a product of her mother’s ideas of what was important in Life; Ashley had never had an original thought. Thanks to what she had read in Charles Harkness’ writings, Ashley felt that her mind was opening like a flower waiting for nutrition.
Within one month of getting involved with The True Path, Ashley became a firm believer in every word ever written or spoken by Vashtu. She became so committed to her belief that she even tried to get Gina involved. Gina would have nothing to do with her roommate’s convictions and, after trying to warn Ashley that she was involved in a cult and that she should seek help, Gina moved to a new room. Ashley decided that Gina had chosen the wrong path and that, now that she had the room to herself, she would have less in the way of distraction in her journey to completing the search for The True Spiritual Path. The only people that Ashley considered as friends were the members of The True Path. This did not really cause Ashley to be concerned since most of her life she had never really had any friends. Ashley became convinced that Corinne, Damon, and the others were her true friends.
One day, as Ashley was heading to the library, Corinne came up to her and said,
“Ashley, there is going to be a special meeting at the Chapel tonight. Vashtu is going to give a special message and everyone is being contacted.”
“What time are we suppose to be there?”
“It starts at 7 PM sharp. If you see any other members, pass the message along.”
“I will. See you tonight.”
“For sure. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
Ashley was curious as to what this special message from Vashtu was about and she could hardly wait for seven o’clock to arrive. Ashley was walking through the stacks looking for on design when she ran into Gina, her old roommate. Ashley was surprised to see to her and she was even more surprised to see her former roommate wearing a somber dark blue dress with a crucifix hanging around her neck. When they had been roommates, Gina had always worn jeans and t-shirts with pictures of goth bands on them. She had even let her short hair grow out.
“Gina! What happened to you? You look so different!”
“Well, I’ve changed a lot since we last saw each other. I’m going to a church now.”
“Really? Which one?”
“It’s a youth group associated with the Baptist Church.”
“What brought about this amazing change?”
“Well, I was out partying one night and me and a couple friends were driving over to a bar. It was a real rainy night and Chad, who was driving, suddenly swerved to avoid hitting a dog in the street and he lost control of the car and we hit a tree. I was knocked unconscious and while I was out, I had a vision. An angel came to me and told me that I would survive but that this was God’s way of giving me a second chance. When I regained consciousness, I found myself in a hospital bed; I had been in a coma for three days. The day before I was released from the hospital, a man came into my room. He said that he was a pastor at the Baptist Church and that one of his duties was to visit the sick. I told him about what had happened to me and he said that his being there was a sign from God. We talked some more, he read some Bible verses to me, and I decided then and there to ask him to pray for me. We prayed and as he was leaving to go to another patient’s room, he left a pamphlet with me which had his church’s times and address on it. That Sunday, I went to the church, listened to the sermon, and by the time that the service was over, I decided to go to the front and let Jesus into my life.”
“Wow! That’s amazing! Well, I’m glad to see that you’re happy.”
“Yes, I am. By the way, are you still into that Spiritual Path thing?”
“Oh, yes. In fact, they are having a special meeting tonight. Would you like to go with me?”
“Um, I’m afraid not, however, if you would like to get a cup of coffee, we could go and talk some more.”
“That would be nice, but I’ll have to leave before seven o’clock.”
“No problem. Let’s go.”
So the two women went to Starbucks and talked. Gina told Ashley about all the miracles that she at witnessed at the Church’s healing prayer circles and Ashley talked about what she had learned from Vashtu. Gina did not mock Ashley about her beliefs, but instead, told her about the love of God. They were so involved in their discussion, that they lost track of the time. Just as Gina was telling Ashley about false prophets, there was the sound of ambulance sirens going off. The two looked out the window and Ashley realized that the ambulances were heading for the Chapel. She quickly looked at her watch and saw that it was 8 o’clock. She jumped out of her seat, excused herself, and ran out the door and followed the last ambulance. By the time that she got to the Chapel, she saw the medics carrying out bodies on stretchers. She ran up to one of the police officers and asked what had happened. The policeman asked her if she was with a news outlet and when she told him “no”, he said,
“A bunch of crazy cultists thought that they could get to some other planet by killing themselves. They each had a gun with one bullet each and shot themselves.”
Ashley started to shake and ran to a bush and threw up. She turned around just as they were bringing out Damon’s body. Even though the body was thoroughly covered up, a gust of wind blew the cover up enough for Ashley to see his face. She started to cry and fell to her knees. After a minute, she felt two hands on her shoulders, looked up and saw Gina’s face. She got Ashley to stand up and then held her in a hug. Gina let Ashley cry on her shoulder for a couple minutes and then started to lead her to the dormitory. When they got there, Gina got Ashley’s key and opened the door. She then led Ashley to the bed and laid her under the covers. Ashley did not resist and with five minutes had fallen asleep. Gina stayed overnight with her and slept on the other bed. When Ashley woke up the next morning, she saw Gina was still asleep and she went into the bathroom to take a shower. Even through her grief, Ashley was a creature of habit. When she came out of the bathroom, her hair still wet, Gina was awake. Gina waited for Ashley to speak first and when she did, she said,
“I could have been one of them, if it hadn’t been for you.”
“I cannot take all of the thanks. Jesus meant for us to meet.”
“Maybe you’re right, but what do I do now?”
“Well, the first thing you do is dry your hair and get dressed. Then we’ll go get some breakfast. After that, if you want, we can go talk to my pastor.”
Like a robot, Ashley did everything that Gina had told her to do. While they were at the cafe, Ashley ate a couple bites of scrambled eggs and sipped some coffee. Ashley did not really feel like eating and so Gina paid the bill and took Ashley over to the Baptist Church. Within an hour after speaking to the pastor, Ashley told him that she wanted to join the church. It wasn’t necessarily any one thing that he had said that convinced her, but she did feel an obligation towards Gina for saving her life. It only took a few months of going to the church that Ashley felt that the need to be baptized. After this, Ashley gave as much of herself to preaching the Gospel as she had to studying the True Spiritual Path. When the pastor of the church started to preach about the immorality of the United States, Ashley became the leader of a youth group that went out to protest stores that carried heavy metal CDs. She also led protests in front of Planned Parenthood buildings and gay bars. With Gina as her friend, Ashley felt that she could do no wrong. They both confronted the so-called “enemies of God” and refused to let themselves be diverted from their course. The day finally came for what Ashley considered her biggest project that she felt God wanted done.
The sun was shining in an azure sky with hardly a cloud to be seen. There was a mild breeze which managed to keep the temperature at a comfortable level. Ashley was driving the lead van of the youth group. The three vans found enough parking spaces to accommodate them in the middle of the parking lot. Ashley got out of the van and waiting for the others to join her. When everyone was present, she spoke loud enough for all of them to hear.
“We are here to protest the corruption of God’s children. We will not engage in debate with anyone; instead, if we have the chance, we will hand out tracts. Are there any questions?”
One hand went up front the back. Ashley saw that it was Joshua, a boy who had recently joined the church.
“Do you think that we’ll be arrested?”
“We have a permit to be here, so, unless these people become violent, you must resist the urge to respond in kind. If there are no more questions, everyone get their sign and bags holding the tracts.”
Gina handed Ashley her sign and a megaphone. Ashley carried her bag across her shoulder. When the group got to the police barracks, Ashley signaled her group to spread out in a line, hold up their signs and start the chant:
“Stop the pedophiles! Beauty pageants are child abuse! Stop the pedophiles! Beauty pageants are child abuse!”
And with the microphone, Ashley’s voice was the loudest.