Authors: Shannon Dermott
Moving my head side to side, I shook the thoughts away. I had a job to do. Kalen had most likely already moved on. He hadn’t called me
when I’d spoken to him yesterday. I’d been Bailey. When was the last time he used my given name? His words of love before we’d parted had probably been to soften the blow that we had to stop seeing each other. And he hadn’t made an attempt to fight for me. So, again, I pushed thoughts of him away and got back to work.
The sun was setting when I closed the ledger. I picked up the handwritten accounting of where the community stood with cash and what was expected to come in and out of the bank account for the things that were known. In the time given, I couldn’t complete a full audit of the books. I focused on confirming the bank statements and invoices to be paid and incoming receipts for small grocers that paid on account.
I was so busy when my sister popped her head in. I could only give her a quick hug and take a peek at the baby who still slept before she was on her way. Then I was back nose deep in numbers and ledgers. I didn’t let the briefness of our visit bother me. I would be spending my nights with her and her husband. I would have plenty of it to catch up with her later.
My stomach rumbled as I left the school house and headed to the town square where everyone would be gathered. There would be a meeting with the elders of our clan before one of them would speak to the community as a whole to discuss the needs and welfare of our existence. This was something routinely done and as with all traditions around here, I didn’t expect that anything had changed in the last few years I’d been gone.
My stomach continued its warpath as I made my way to the square. Silently, I promised it a feast. On these occasions the food would be plentiful. Every family brought a dish for the pot luck. There would be more than enough to choose from. As an added bonus, dinner would be served in the town hall but eaten outside if the weather permitted.
Spotting my father, I headed in his direction with a folder of the information he needed to start the elders’ meetings. The sun was just visible on the horizon. Thankfully, I wasn’t late. When he spotted me, it was the first time since I arrived back home I saw approval on his face.
Before I could reach him, I was stopped by Turner stepping into my path. I hadn’t told him the task my father had put me on, and he hadn’t come after me. He didn’t know that I needed to get this information into my father’s hands before I could breathe again. The need to please Father was like a pressing weight I didn’t think I’d ever overcome.
“Are you running from me, Bails?” Turner asked. He didn’t give me time to answer. “Because it feels like you keep running away from me. I’m starting to wonder if something’s wrong with me.”
“No,” I said softly, closing my eyes to the emotion that hit me every time I was near him. “I just have to get these numbers to my father.” I raised the folder as proof.
He nodded and stepped out of my way. I gave Turner a smile before I found a scowl on my father’s face. I sighed, because I was starting to wonder if a hotel would have been a better hiding place than coming home.
It was a long time before I saw Turner again that night. I was pulled into a yawn worthy elder meeting to give a verbal accounting of the books. There were a lot of nods and several questions. Luckily, I’d spent the night before going through the ledgers and could answer most of their questions. That had been a stroke of luck. After I had been sent away, my father gave me strict instructions to help the other women in the food line, dishing out plates.
The chattering women were more than happy to put me to work.
My mother smiled and commented, “You look a little thin,” while others looked curious.
The only response I offered was to hold up the plate I was adding a side dish too. With a waiting line, no one had time to comment more or ask about my reappearance in town.
My feet felt like weighted blocks were attached to them by the time everyone had been served. Finally, I was able to make my own plate and head to the table where my older sister Violet sat with an unfamiliar man.
Seated at the end of a long table, they were curiously left with plenty of seats in between them and another group who sat at the other end. She was all but isolated with only the man who I assumed was her husband. I made a mental note to find out what that was all about. Our community generally didn’t openly shun people. And the way people walked by without speaking to them told a story that I needed to hear.
Violet and I had always been close. She was a free spirit much as I had been. When I suggested she should go off to college with me, she’d only rolled her eye and told me that the only thing she’d ever be good at was mothering. So it had been a surprise when it was Mary who had given birth first. In fact, Mary was also the first of us to get married.
“Vi.” I quickly set my plate down and then hugged her.
“Bails,” she cried out with genuine excitement. After returning from the elder meeting, there hadn’t been time for me to greet her before I was put to work. She’d had a plate and had been talking to various people before she sat at the table. Having seen that only made it more ominous why people were avoiding her now. Her smile quickly disappeared and I followed her line of sight to her hand. The man sitting across from her held it in a tight grip. For a second I didn’t understand what happened until it felt like a frosty wind had passed through. “Bails, this is my husband Mike. Mike, this is my younger sister Bailey.”
Mike loosened his grip and set her free. In the process, popping out just above his tunic neckline and peaking around his wrist were hints of tattoos. His long, dirty blonde hair was tied back. His beard was slightly unruly and might have been attractive in a rugged kind of way if he didn’t have a nasty gleam in his eye. I hated to dislike someone I’d never met before, but this man gave me chills.
“Bailey, I like. Cool name compared to most of these yahoos.”
Stunned, I couldn’t believe he’d just spoken unkindly about a group of people who’d taken him in. Strangers weren’t really welcome because most had a fascination about our community as if we were some sort of cult. Usually, they wanted knowledge to exploit us. You had to prove yourself to be allowed to join our clan. He’d obviously passed and had been allowed to marry my sister. My father was stern and protective. He would never let any of his girls marry a guy unfit for our society. So what was it that I was feeling?
A fake smile warmed my face. I would try hard not to let this first impression affect me. My sister’s sadness could be due to a recent argument. “Hi Mike.”
I was just about to say something when Turner sat next to me. When I looked at him, his face only held a smile for me.
“Can I talk to you later?” Turner asked.
“I’m supposed to stay at Mary’s. I’m not sure when they go to bed for the night. With a new baby, I don’t want to intrude on their schedule. It would be best if I head on over after helping clean up. I don’t want to arrive late and wake them.”
It was an excuse, but I wasn’t ready for the talk I knew he wanted to have.
Violet brightened. “Don’t stay with Miss Prim. You’re welcome to stay with us.” But then she stopped herself as if she’d spoken out of turn. She looked over at Mike and I trailed her gaze. He gave her a predatory smile.
“Of course your sister is welcome. We have more than enough room until you start popping out those babies.” His hand went to her belly and spoke as if there was more meaning laced in his words.
Violet went deathly pale. I looked between her and her husband. He went back to working on his plate. It was piled higher than anyone would have given him. I looked to Violet’s plate, and hers looked only half eaten. I assumed his extras were taken from her helping.
Turner said, “I think Mary would be disappointed if you don’t stay with her.” His voice was cautious. He looked at Mike watching the man shovel food in his mouth the way trash trucks do when they lifted dumpsters to empty their contents into their bellies.
Mike barely lifted a brow. “I think these two sisters need time together. I’ve heard so much about Red. And we live so far from everyone else. Violet hardly ever gets to talk to anyone.”
His words made my face tensed. Then I felt my features relax as I schooled them. Everyone in the community worked together to keep this place going. Most jobs weren’t solitary. No matter where Violet lived, she shouldn’t be starved for conversation.
Mike’s hand was back on Violet’s. I caught it when her head snapped up. “Yeah,” she said shakily. “Please come and stay with me so we could catch up.” Her voice was sweet but something sour was definitely there. The longer I was around them, the more I disliked the feeling I was getting in the pit of my stomach.
“Yeah… I’ll stay with you tonight.” And tonight I would find out what the hell was going on.
My younger sisters, whom I had only glanced at while they slept came over and hugged both me and Violet as if they’d seen neither of us in a very long time. That only added to my concern. Turner playfully mussed their sandy blonde hair and told them just how pretty they were.
My two brothers, however, hadn’t bothered to greet me except to say “Hi” in the food line as if it hadn’t been years since I’ve seen them. Jacob, the older at seventeen, carried himself like my father, regal and sure of himself. The younger at fourteen seemed in awe of his big brother, but was more reserved and shy. He gave me a winning smile. I was sure he would have happily hugged me if not for Jacob at his side. So when my sisters walked away, I used that as an excuse to seek out my brothers.
“John,” I said, enveloping him in a hug. “I missed you.”
He squeezed me back. When he spoke, his voice lacked the baritone that came with age and in fact cracked a little. “Bails.” A shyness that screamed embarrassment crossed his face. I wanted to tell him he wouldn’t be the squeaky boy for long. Yet, I held my tongue.
When Jacob walked over trying to be cool and lightly punched me on my shoulder, I took him by surprise in my embrace. “Hey Jake,” I teased. He was Jake and father was Jacob. It had always been that way to keep them separate since they shared a name.
“Bails,” he hesitantly said, patting my back awkwardly before pulling away. “Yeah, since you’re so happy to see us, maybe you could do us a favor.”
“And what’s that?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.
“There’s a dance Friday. Father won’t let us go unless we have an escort.” He rolled his eyes like it was nonsense.
An arm at my shoulder acknowledged the presence of Turner at my side. “She’ll come because she’s my date.”
John glanced back and forth between us, and Jake got a wicked gleam in his eye. “I bet she is,” Jake said before striding off. Apparently he was done with me. The strawberry blonde in the corner he was heading towards was all the confirmation I needed that I’d been sorely dismissed. John smiled before following in his brother’s wake.
“Date,” I said, swiveling to face Turner.
“Yeah, the one I was going to ask you on. But thankfully Jake took care of that.”
I almost contradicted him when the elders strolled in. Everything quieted and I headed back to my place by Violet with Turner in tow.
The meeting only brought me further back in time. It was almost as if I’d never left. According to the elders, things were good. More and more people wanted to purchase food and other handmade goods from our community. They talked about the plan for the upcoming winter and what needed to be done to survive it. It reminded me that firewood was important to find and store safely as it would be our only source of heat.
I eyed my sister’s husband who was barely paying attention. Mike had the look of a man who didn’t care because he had no intentions of being here when the cold hit the area. It didn’t’ take a genius to see something wasn’t adding up. So why was he allowed to stay here?
After the meeting was over, it was up to the younger generation to remove any plates or trash left on the tables. The women were huddled outside in front of large basins either washing or drying the dishes. While others wrapped up leftover food for those who had iceboxes and wanted to take it. The men worked together to move the large tables and benches to one side of the hall leaving the place empty for whatever events were to come. And according to Jake that would most likely be a dance on Friday night.
When it was all done, Mike was nowhere in sight. Vi looked nervous and I was about to ask the important question when Turner walked over.
“Can I walk you ladies home?”
Vi looked up at Turner with dreamy eyes. Of course she had crushed on him. Turner was closer to her age than he was to mine. Being the good natured person she was, when she found out years ago that Turner and I had eyes for each other outside of friendship, she’d sighed and told me I was a lucky girl.
On the other hand, Mary wouldn’t have handled it the same way. Mary always competed with me at every turn. I wasn’t even surprised at her choice of husband. Thomas had pursued me until he found out about my betrothal with Turner and backed off.
“We don’t need your protection like we did when we were little.” I teased him. Honestly, I wanted time to talk with my sister before we were near her husband.
“What kind of man would I be if I let two beautiful women walk home after dark alone?”