Read An Excerpt Of This Eerie Novel That's Based On The Jonestown Massacre
A chilling excerpt from The Project, a new young adult novel by author Courtney Summers.
The silhouette of a weathered barn stands tall against the backdrop of a cloudy sky.
Eight years ago, the Garrett family gave Lev Warren use of their land in exchange for free labor, and it was there, in that barn, he gathered a small group of people and asked them to imagine their part in the work he was only calling God’s will at the time. A large white tent stands at the front of the property now and I shadow countless bodies navigating the maze of vehicles parked in the mud as they make their way to it. It calls to mind a tent revival, the air thick with easily corrupted, foolish belief.
And my sister, here.
My sister has been here.
I have to push my soul past that reality, through it, just so my body can exist within it. I’ve wasted enough time trying to see all of this through Bea’s eyes, to understand it with her heart, and I can’t. I see it for what it is: the dirt-stained edges of the tent pinned to the ground, the sick scent of desperation in the air, cow shit mapping its edges, Project members moving through the crowd, sizing up the weakest to bring into their fold. Bea was weak. I’m not.
That we’re both here today proves it.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Dana asks.
I swallow hard, find my voice somehow.
“How many here are already members?” I don’t believe half the attendees are unique hits. They’re card carrying. They know belief is contagious and the most important thing they can do is show up en masse to clap their hands and shout amen.
“Fewer than you think.”
There’s a cold bite to the air that makes me rub my hands together. I see a gap among people and imagine Jeremy there, a smile on his face like in the pictures. I scan the crowd and wait for a sick jolt in my stomach to signal Bea, but it doesn’t come.
“You won’t see Lev before the sermon starts,” Dana tells me.
“Right,” I say, like that’s who I was looking for.
I pull my collar further up. We continue our way to the tent and I catch threads of conversations as we move. Quite a few people are here at the behest of friends and family. There are several who have left their church recently and are trying to find something that feels ‘right’ and hope this is it. A little girl complains to her mother of the cold, and a stranger assures them the tent is heated. Before I can find out, a man stops me at its entrance, raising his hand and sending my heart crashing to my feet. He’s tall and thin. He has strawberry blond hair tucked behind his ears. It falls to the nape of his neck, curls at the ends. A tidy ginger beard frames his pale white face. He wears blue jeans, a gray Henley, a camo puffer vest and black gloves. He stares at me for a moment that feels longer than necessary. I stare back because it’s all I can do.
“Foster,” Dana says.
“Dana.” He nods at me. “Who’s your friend?”
“This is Gloria.”
“Step forward, hold your arms out.” He gestures me toward him, then leans half into the tent and calls, “Amalia.” A moment later, a young woman with curly black hair and light brown skin appears. She’s wearing the same kind of outfit he is; jeans, Henley, camo vest, gloves.
“What is this?” I ask.
“Security,” Dana says. “Pat down, then you’re free to go in.”
“Are you serious?”
“We do it for everyone and I’m right after you.”
I step forward and stretch out my arms. Amalia gives me a very small smile before her hands feather over my body, my arms, my legs, my back and my sides. It doesn’t stop there; they open my bag, riffling through it, and then Foster plucks my phone from one of the inside pockets. I make a grab for it, saying, “I don’t think so.”
“We’ll keep it safe.”
“Give me my phone.”
“I can’t let you into the sermon with it.”
I turn to Dana. “What is this?”
“We don’t allow people to bring in any electronic devices that could record audio or video of the sermon,” Foster explains, his tone clipped. “It was on the website.”
“What does it matter? Doesn’t Lev stand by what he says?”
“Of course he does. And if he could ensure that his words would not be manipulated or edited to discredit us, he would allow it. If we can prevent the potential spread of misinformation, that’s what we choose.”
“Where do you keep them?”
“In the house.”
I exhale slowly through my teeth and then I tell Foster I want to turn mine off, at least. They wait while it powers down, and then he puts it in a container with all the others he’s gathered. Next, it’s Dana’s turn. I watch Amalia pat her down the same way she did me and I realize it’s a trick, a way to keep onlookers less certain of who and who isn’t a member. Dana doesn’t have to give up her phone. When we’re finally cleared, Foster steps aside.
“Welcome, Gloria,” he says.
It’s stuffy inside the tent, to the point of near immediate nausea. Rows of benches make up both sides but there hardly seems enough room for everyone who’s come. At the back of the tent—or I guess, the front—a transparent, plastic window lets gray light in. I expect a pulpit, but there’s none. Dana keeps close to me.
“Can’t remember being frisked at the last church I went to.”
“You know what history shows us happening to men like Lev?”
I try not to laugh. “Someone wants to kill Lev Warren?”
“Look around you. Look at how many are here. The current administration and its supporters think the greatest threat to national security are the kind of principles The Project is built on and they know Lev saw them coming.”
I glance back at Foster. He’s working over a middle-aged man while a family of four waits behind him. An uneasy feeling washes over me.
“Are Foster and Amalia armed?”
“Let’s sit there.” Dana points to a bench five rows from the front. We’re about ten minutes out from the sermon, the room filling in a halting fashion as each person is processed by security and I keep looking for her—but I still don’t see Bea.
The energy continues to build as people seat themselves and once the tent is full, the frenzied, fevered pitch of voices becomes dangerously taut, marching toward a crescendo I’m afraid will somehow snap us all in half. And then, in what feels like the second before it would, a quiet descends. Something happening at the back of the room. A cold sweat breaks out on the back of my neck. Lev Warren may be inextricably tied to my life, a stain on it—but I’ve never actually been in the same place as him before. I twist around in my seat.
It’s not him.
A tall, lithe white woman with long, crinkly red hair stands at the tent’s opening. Casey Byers, Project Spokesperson. NuCola Heiress. Rumor is her trust fund got The Unity Project off the ground before membership could sustain it. She wears a white dress that drapes softly over the curves of her body and a gentle smile on her face.
All I see is teeth.
I sink down low in my seat as she makes her way up the aisle.
She reaches the front of the room and surveys us all warmly.
“Welcome.” Her voice is soft, demanding the absolute silence of the crowd just to hear it. “My name is Casey Byers. I’ve been with The Unity Project from its earliest days. It was only a handful of us back then. Bunch of kids, really. We’d gather in the barn you see up the hill to talk about Lev’s vision. God’s vision. I imagined you all here with me then and now . . . here you are.” She pauses. “It’s a certain type of person that finds themselves at this sermon. Perhaps you’re hurting, angry, confused or alone. You yearn to be seen. I want you to know that I see you. I see you because I was you.”
She holds for an appreciative—if a little bit extended—round of applause.
“My life was without meaning before The Unity Project. I had everything and wanted for nothing but I was incomplete. I was empty and I wanted to be free of my emptiness. I escaped into sin, numbed myself with vice. I hoped—” her voice wavers a little. “I hoped that I would die before anyone realized how worthless I knew myself to be.
“But then Lev Warren Saw me.”
She closes her eyes.
“And I realized how starved my soul was and how desperate it was to believe in something greater than myself—and to be believed in. I can’t talk you through what you’re about to experience. No words could do it justice. Lev Warren witnessed me through God’s eyes and I was no longer afraid, I was no longer hurting and I no longer felt alone. I walked the path of Warren’s Theory and I am redeemed. My life has purpose. I live with hope. I am complete. The Unity Project now offers that same opportunity to you. Faith without works is dead. Our faith is vibrant and alive.”
She opens her eyes and her gaze shifts just slightly past us.
“Let him show you,” she says.
A hushed, heavy awe settles over the room and then someone starts to wail—a keening sound above all else. What happens next is chaos; people fold themselves around him, hoping to be witnessed. I don’t even glimpse Lev before he disappears into their collective faith. I can only track his progress by the rippling of bodies as he makes his way slowly toward the front. As soon as he’s close enough for me to parse, a hand grips my arm, pulling me violently from my seat. I instinctively reach for Dana but her back is to me; I call her name but she doesn’t hear. The acolytes pay no mind to the girl struggling to break free of a punishing grip and I have this thought that if I died right here, right now, no one would notice. ●
From The Project by Courtney Summers. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of Wednesday Books.
Courtney Summers is the bestselling and critically acclaimed author of several novels for young adults, including Cracked Up to Be, All the Rage, and Sadie. Her work has been released to multiple starred reviews, received numerous awards and honors — including the Edgar Award, John Spray Mystery Award, Cybils Award and Odyssey Award — and has been recognized by many library, 'Best Of' and Readers' Choice lists. She lives and writes in Canada. Her latest novel, The Project, releases February 2nd, 2021 wherever books are sold.