THE PROPHET CALLS by: Melanie Sumrow

THE PROPHET CALLS by: Melanie Sumrow

THE PROPHET CALLS by: Melanie SumrowThe Prophet Calls Goodreads

Born into a polygamous community in the foothills of New Mexico, Gentry Forrester feels lucky to live among God’s chosen. Here, she lives apart from the outside world and its “evils.”
On her thirteenth birthday, Gentry receives a new violin from her father and, more than anything, she wants to play at the Santa Fe Music Festival with her brother, Tanner. But then the Prophet calls from prison and announces he has outlawed music in their community and now forbids women to leave.
Determined to play, Gentry and Tanner sneak out. But once they return, the Prophet exercises control from prison, and it has devastating consequences for Gentry and her family. Soon, everything Gentry has known is turned upside down. She begins to question the Prophet’s teachings and his revelations, especially when his latest orders put Gentry’s family in danger. Can Gentry find a way to protect herself and her family from the Prophet and escape the only life she’s ever known?
This realistic, powerful story of family, bravery, and following your dreams is a can't-miss debut novel from Melanie Sumrow.

Uncle Max beckons us to follow him. I swallow hard as we move away from the stream of people entering the meetinghouse.

As soon as Tanner and I turn the corner, I spot the worn leather strap. It hangs from a rusted nail on the wall. The sight of the leather makes me shake.

Tanner’s nervousness radiates off him. He’s so uptight, his shoulders almost touch the bottom of his ears.

Uncle Max stops near a small window, just inches from the strap.

The meetinghouse door slams shut, making both Tanner and me jump.

From the sunlight coming through the window, I can see the painful-looking red bumps that run down the Vulture’s long neck and disappear beneath his starched collar. Obsessed with neatness, he’s shaved too close again. My stomach turns at the sight of a sore that oozed a drop of scarlet onto his white collar. His Adam’s apple rises and falls as he swallows. “We have a problem.”

I clench my hands, expecting the strap to come off the wall any second. Why did I have to play?

It’s all I can do to keep from shoving my brother toward Uncle Max and making a run for it.

The only reason I don’t is because I know I wouldn’t get very far. Buckley, the red-faced goon, and his God Squad guard the meetinghouse during service with their guns. Once the door closes, no one gets in. No one gets out.

Uncle Max raises a pale, slender hand. I flinch. “The Prophet hasn’t called.”

Huh?

Tanner looks as stunned as I feel. “But he always calls,” my brother mutters. “Eleven o’clock, Sunday morning.”

“I’m aware, son.” Uncle Max smooths the front of his suit jacket even though it’s already perfect. “I need you two to stall.”

Us?

“Stall?” Tanner repeats. His upper body relaxes a little. “How?”

Uncle Max flaps at us. “Conway said you could play your violins while we await the Prophet.”

Butterflies fill my stomach. Sure, Tanner and I play together at home. But that’s for our family. “We’ve never played in front of the whole community,” I say. My voice comes out smaller than I’d like.

“Are you telling me your father has lied?”

“No,” Tanner says. “We can do it.”

My eyes go wide. No, we can’t.

“Good,” Uncle Max says with a nod. “Conway has already placed your instruments on the stage.”

My stomach folds over on itself, squishing all the butterflies.

Uncle Max walks away from the window. “Don’t make me wait too long.”

When he’s gone, I turn to my brother. “What’s wrong with you? We can’t play in front of all these people.”

Tanner shrugs. “Why not?”

“For starters, they’ll think we’re worldly.” Most people in our community don’t have musical instruments. They think those kinds of things are a waste of money that would be better spent paying for the Prophet’s lawyers, who are working day and night to get him out of prison.

My brother rolls his eyes. “Who cares what theythink? Father thinks we can.”

“But he has to think that. He’s our father.”

“It will make Mother so happy.” He nudges my arm. “All of those hours and hours of practice.”

“No fair.” Mother’s the best music teacher in the world. There’s no telling how many hours she’s worked with us, and it would make her so happy if we did well.

When I was little, Mother tried to teach me piano, but I wanted to be like Tanner and play the violin. He nears the prayer room, nervously picking his ear before smearing his finger across his pant leg. “So, I guess you’re gonna tell Uncle Max we won’t do it, then?”

“Fine,” I say with a sigh. “One song.”

Tanner points to my skirt. “You better dust that off first,” he says and then smirks while giving his best Meryl impression, “A grown woman should never allow herself to get so dirty.”

I shake my head. “Says the boy with earwax on his pants.”

He ignores my insult and heads toward the prayer room. I quickly brush the dirt off my skirt and follow him through the replica of the Prophet’s prison cell.

We all must experience what our lack of faith has done to the Prophet. So Uncle Max had a fake prison cell built. There’s no way to get to the prayer room without passing through the musty space. It gives me the creeps. The windowless “cell” has bars from floor to ceiling with a dirty cot shoved against the wall. A single light bulb buzzes overhead. There’s even a stainless-steel toilet in the corner. It doesn’t actually work, though. One of my little brothers already tried it.

I squint at the natural light coming through the windows of the large prayer room. Uncle Max insists the women of the community keep the room spotless, and the whole place smells of pine disinfectant. My eyes burn from the fumes.

Across the length of the room, our community sits in long rows of metal folding chairs. Kids younger than eight years old sit on the floor near the stage up front. Uncle Max is on the stage, talking into the microphone. He explains how everyone is in for a real treat this morning.

As he gestures to the back of the room, heads turn. People stare at Tanner and me. My heart flip-flops as I search the faces for my family. They’re in their usual spot in the center of the congregation.

Amy smiles and waves when she sees me. I quickly wave back. A few adults chuckle, making my face go hot.

My sister pats the seat next to her, showing me where to sit. I almost join her, but I hear Tanner’s shoes thud across the carpeted stage. He walks past my violin case and is already pulling his instrument from its case. Uncle Max’s eyes narrow. People mumble, and I force myself to move toward the front.

My feet feel heavy as I walk, as if sacks of flour are weighing them down. The chatter grows louder with each step. I hear fragments of my name.

When I finally reach the stage, Tanner has tuned his instrument. The Prophet glares at me from his massive portrait that hangs on the wall behind the stage. From the front row, the Prophet’s eighteen-year-old son, Dirk, sits and stares at me along with everyone else.

My body’s shaking as I turn to pick up my violin, which suddenly looks tiny in my hands. If only I’d gotten a full-size one for my birthday. I’ve grown so much in the last year; my old one is too small. It’s harder to play now when my fingers are all cramped together.

I look from my violin and see the Prophet’s portrait again, but now, it’s even closer. A lump lands in my throat. I tuck my violin under my right arm and pull my bow from the case. Rosin dust flies from the horsehairs and tickles my nose. I sniffle and will myself not to sneeze on Uncle Max’s stage. My trembling fingers fumble with the screw at the end of my bow until I finally get it to twist and tighten.

“Thank you, Uncle Max,” Tanner announces. I have no idea what we’re going to play. I meet my brother center stage and pluck the strings of my violin with my thumb to make sure they’re in tune. The tip of my bow hangs against my long skirt, swinging between the folds.

Tanner lifts his instrument and addresses the congregation. “Our first hymn is ‘Glorious Things Are Sung of Zion.’”

People shift in their seats. They’re all watching us. From the back corner of the room, Channing gives us a thumbs-up.
    I feel sick.

Tanner nods toward the little kids and mouths to me, Just look at Amy.

Somehow, our sister is there, sitting right up front with the little kids. She must’ve moved when I had my back turned. Amy smiles and gives me a wink behind her thick glasses. Her confidence helps me relax. A little.

I bring my violin under my chin.

“G major,” Tanner whispers, quickly reminding me of the key signature.

My bow touches the D string as we begin. Tanner plays the melody, and I play the harmony. We both pull long, smooth strokes across the strings. Sustained chords echo against the walls of the prayer room.

Halfway through the second verse, I hear Amy singing the lyrics like we do at home. I shake my head slightly. I don’t want her to get into trouble. But she keeps going.

To my surprise, Uncle Max starts to sing with her. When we reach the third verse, other voices slowly seep in and join theirs. The knots in my neck loosen. We play a little bolder. By the end of the fourth verse, it sounds like everyone is singing, “And we’ll know as we are known.”

When we sound the last chord, Amy claps. She’s the only one. I lower my violin and hold it against my body. Then, I notice the congregation smiling. The adults. The kids. Everyone. I don’t remember seeing so many of God’s chosen smiling without being ordered to do it first.

Tanner nods, acknowledging Amy’s applause. I don’t take a bow, because that would be prideful. But I can’t help but feel proud. I smile instead.

Amy jumps to her feet, enthusiastically clapping above her head.

From the corner of my eye, I notice Dirk shift in his seat. He shoots my sister an icy glare.

My skin suddenly feels clammy. “Amy,” I say under my breath, trying to make her stop. But she keeps going.

“Hey, retard,” Dirk taunts.

I flinch. She stops clapping.

Dirk rises from his chair in the front row and hovers over Amy and the other kids. “I’m talking to you.”

My hand clenches my bow so hard it nearly cuts my hand. It’s not the first time someone has called her that awful name. Amy has Down syndrome, but that doesn’t mean she’s a retard or stupid or any of the other horrible things people say. Dirk is just mean. And, because he’s the Prophet’s son, he can get away with it—Dirk the Jerk.

At first, Amy seems shocked. She looks embarrassed. Her cheeks turn pink as she looks behind her.

“Yeah, stupid, I’m talking to you,” he jeers.

I take a step forward. “Leave her alone.” Several gasp as Tanner pulls me back into place. A girl’s not supposed to talk back to a man, especially not the Prophet’s son.

Dirk turns his scowl to me. “Your sister’s so stupid she has to sit with the little kids now?”

Some of the boys in the audience chuckle. Technically, Amy’s eleven and shouldn’t be sitting up front anymore. Of course, technically, Dirk’s face is as ugly as the east end of a horse headed west, but we still let him sit in the front row.

I shift forward. Tanner yanks on me once again. “Don’t,” he whispers.

Dirk lifts his chin as Amy lowers hers and pushes her fingers under her glasses to wipe the tears from her eyes.

“You’re such a jerk,” I say.

“Gentry. Elaine. Forrester,” Father warns. Loud. So loud I can feel the boom of his voice inside my chest. He’s standing now, too. His face is as red as our hair. Mother sits to his left. Her eyes fall to the pink carpet, and I know I’ve humiliated her.

I suddenly look down and away when I realize everyone’s judging me.

“We’ll discuss your punishment at home,” Father says.

Punishment?

I glance up. But what about Amy? Who’s going to speak up for her if I don’t? If only I could tell Father none of this would’ve happened if hehadn’t suggested we play for the congregation. That all I wanted was to sit next to Amy and remain anonymous.

Amy wades through the little kids to get to the side aisle. Dirk tries to trip her, but she manages to get past him and keeps going. He laughs, mocking her again.

“Do you have something to say for yourself?” Father asks me, even though it’s not really a question.

Mother Lenora sits to his right. Her arms fold over her round body. Like she’s enjoying this a little too much.

My jaw tightens.

When Amy reaches the center of the room, moans and groans rise from my half brothers and sisters as she bumps into them and hurries to climb over their legs and reach our mother.

“Sorry,” I mumble.

A smug grin spreads across Dirk’s face, but I’m not talking to him. I’m talking to my sister. I’m sorry there are jerks in this world that don’t see what a blessing you are.

“How—how about another hymn?” Tanner suggests.

Dirk nods at Father, and they both take their seats.

From the stage, I can see Amy bury her face in Mother’s side. I bite my lip and place my violin under my chin, ready to get my mind on something—anything—else.

But Uncle Max touches the scroll on Tanner’s instrument. “The Prophet calls,” he announces.

“Thanks be to God,” the crowd responds in a monotone voice.

Uncle Max suddenly looks annoyed that we’re still onstage. “Put your instruments away,” he tells Tanner and me. “Go to your seats.”

We quickly place our violins in their cases. But as I descend the steps, Dirk snatches my left hand with his sweaty one. I manage to rip my fingers away and wipe them against my skirt. I glance at the nearest adult and then the next. But they act like they didn’t see anything.

If any other boy had tried to take my hand, no fewer than ten adults would be pointing their fingers. Yet nobody says a word to the Prophet’s son, even though he should know better. After all, his father’s the one who preaches unmarried boys and girls risk death if they even thinkabout touching.

I want to kill him myself for putting me in danger. But Tanner doesn’t give me the chance. “Keep moving,” he says as he hurries me up the aisle to the empty seats on our family’s row and then traps me between Mother and him.

“All right,” Uncle Max says into the telephone. “Everyone is in place.” He sets the phone onto a docking station that connects to a pair of wall speakers.

The Prophet’s breath comes from the telephone and through the speakers as if he is sitting in the room with us. “Very well,” he says. “I ask the young people to stand and stretch their legs before I start the lesson.”

Immediately, all of the little kids jump to their feet. I’m still seething about Dirk as Amy stands on the other side of Mother. At least we’re sitting behind him this time, so he doesn’t bother her. The children twist side to side. Some reach for the ceiling.

“Better?” the Prophet asks as if he is there on the stage, even though I know he can’t see us from his prison cell hundreds of miles away.

I check his portrait, just to make sure the eyes don’t move.

The children nod, and Uncle Max walks past the Prophet’s picture—the eyes remain still.

“We’re ready to receive your word, Father,” Dirk says as Uncle Max sits in a stuffed burgundy chair on the stage.

I shudder, annoyed all over again that Dirk touched me. As soon as I get home, I’m scrubbing my hand under the hottest water I can stand.

Amy reaches over Mother and pushes against my thigh to get my attention. She points to the back of the prayer room. I turn to look: Channing smiles and silently applauds. Tanner laughs to himself. Then I see Mother staring daggers at me and I quickly face forward, my face flushing hot.

“Be seated,” the Prophet orders. “I’d ask that my people take a deep breath,” the Prophet continues as the kids sit. On command, we all take a breath. As my lungs expand, I feel a little better. We exhale. “Another.” We take another, and some of the anger seeps out of me. “Now smile.” Everyone in the room forces a smile. Everyone. Mother gives me a look of warning, so I make myself smile, too. But it doesn’t feel the same as when we all smiled without being ordered to do it.

“Today, we come to Third Nephi, Chapter Twelve,” the Prophet says. Everyone’s face relaxes as the sermon reverberates through the speakers. “This is where we are taught to always keep sweet.”

I swallow hard. “Keep sweet” means we should act happy no matter how we really feel. We’re supposed to hold in the sadness. When we keep sweet, we bottle up words of anger and never let them come spewing from our mouths. Meryl says I need a lot of work on that one.

“For if you keep sweet, you will conquer the evil inside,” the Prophet continues.

I lower my head, guilty. I showed the evil inside when I stood up to Dirk. And the whole community saw it.

As the Prophet begins to read from the Book of Mormon, Tanner passes me an envelope.

My eyes question him. Is he tryingto get me into trouble again?

He covers his lips with his index finger and then points for me to open it. While the Prophet explains in detail how the Beatitudes should “be our attitude,” I slide the heavy cream card with raised gold lettering from the envelope.

It’s an invitation. Goose bumps run up and down my arms. To Tanner and me. From the Santa Fe Music Festival. So many times, Tanner and I have talked about how someday we’d enter the competition for a chance to play in the festival. But we didn’t enter. At least as far as I know, we didn’t.

A smile stretches across my face. Mother sometimes records us so we can hear our mistakes. Did he use one of those? How?I mouth to Tanner. He shrugs with pride.

I skim the invitation again. We’ve been asked to play at the festival in five days. Five days. The best musicians in New Mexico. In five days.

“Happy birthday,” Tanner whispers beneath the voice of the Prophet. He quickly looks forward.

“Gentry,” Mother scolds softly, even though it wasn’t me. Her tired eyes narrow. Seated down the row, Father grins slightly. His face is no longer red with anger. I wonder if he knows about the invitation. Mother clears her throat and points to the Prophet’s portrait.

I quickly face forward.

“Make it right,” the Prophet announces through the speakers.

I glance at the invitation. Another wave of excitement runs through me.

“Let go of your bad feelings.”

My leg bobs with excitement. No bad feelings here. Father and Mother took some of us kids to the festival when we were little, and it’s been our dream to play in it ever since.

“Be still,” Mother hisses.

I sit on my hands and the invitation, trying to obey.

“Then the Lord will hear your prayers. You must keep sweet. So, smile. Smile.”

“Smile,” Uncle Max urges under his breath.

Everyone plasters a fake smile on again.

“For your smile is proof that you are chosen and blessed,” the Prophet says. “Amen.”

“Amen,” we all repeat.

I inch to the edge of my seat, eager for the Prophet to dismiss us. I can’t wait to talk to Tanner. Ask how he managed to enter us in the festival without me knowing about it. Discuss what we’re going to play.

“I have received a holy revelation,” the Prophet announces, his voice somber. The Prophet talks with God and receives instructions directly from Him. We receive these revelations when he calls during our weekly prayer service or from Uncle Max, who visits the Prophet in prison monthly and speaks with him on the phone almost daily.

I lean against my seat, ready to hear the word of God.

The Prophet’s breathing grows heavier through the speakers on the wall. “I have seen the evil of the outside world, and it is dark.”

Mother’s elbow knocks my side as she wraps her arms around herself.

“The outside world is jealous. They want to kill and destroy us.”

My hand covers the invitation on my lap.

“None of you are safe from the evil influences of outsiders.”

Uncle Max nods in agreement.

“Especially the women,” the Prophet says.

Suddenly, it’s as though the dull eyes of the Prophet’s portrait are boring right through me. I can feel the letters on the festival invitation, brushing against my palm.

“I have seen your hearts, and you women are weak.”

Men are strong. Women are weak.I’ve heard this ever since I can remember, even though I’ve beaten Kel at arm wrestling at least a dozen times. And he’s the same age as me.

“Therefore, I declare, from this day forward, the women are too vulnerable to leave our community. From now on, you must stay inside our protective wall. It is so revealed.”

The plastic chair presses into my shoulder blades as I bow my head. “Amen.”

Tanner suddenly leans forward like the air’s been knocked out of him. His face is as white as powdered milk.

“What’s wrong?” I whisper, nudging him.

He looks like he’s going to be sick. “You’re a woman now,” he moans.

I shake my head, not understanding.

“You.” He points. “Woman.”

And suddenly I understand. The Prophet’s revelation. The festival. My birthday.

Tanner and I have dreamed about the festival for years. Years.And now we won’t be able to go because I’m too old?

I want to scream, but then I remember the Prophet’s warning about showing the evil inside. I glance over at Father’s profile and take a deep breath. He’s heard us go on about the festival so many times. He knows what it means to Tanner and me. I take another breath. If I can keep sweet, he’ll have to let us go. If I follow the spirit of the Prophet, everything will be fine.

Melanie Sumrow received her undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and has maintained a long-term interest in studying world religions. Before becoming a writer, she worked as a lawyer for more than 16 years, with many of her cases involving children and teens. Melanie lives in Dallas with her husband, her daughter and one very spoiled dog.

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