Nestled on Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin is a small, secluded town called Bloodmoon Cove with volatile weather, suspicious folk…and newly awakened ghosts.
Don’t close your eyes…
How to bury what won’t stay dead…?
When Bennet Ryan was eight years old, he met Ice and fell for her. Yet who Ice was and where she came from was an enigma she adamantly concealed. When they were 19, Bennet demanded she entrust her secrets to him or he’d move on. Every year since he met her, she’d disappeared at the end of September. After Bennet left her, he’d worried she wouldn’t come back within two weeks the way she always had before. His worst fear materialized when she didn’t return.
Now, at 20, Bennet is the new deputy sheriff in Erie County. Still grieving a year after her disappearance, he’s floored when Ice reappears. As they fall in love all over again, September is approaching rapidly. Bennet is compelled to solve the mystery of Ice. The deeper he delves, the more certain he is that the hole the Mino-Miskwi elders tore in the veil between the living and the dead a century ago has created a maelstrom of twisted horror. How can he possibly save the woman he loves from an entity that wears the name of creation’s first murderer, bears an immortal seal, and made a pact with the devil himself?
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(ebooks are available from all sites, and print is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and some from Angus and Robertson)
Continue the series:
Part I: Sow
VERB: plant (seed) by scattering it on or in the earth.
Galatians 7:7: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.”
“A man reaps what he sows.
A man reaps later than he sows.
A man reaps more than he sows.”
~Charles F. Stanley from
The Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible
“Sowing is not as difficult as reaping.” ~Wolfgang von Goethe
“What is it, old boy?” Bennet Ryan asked, watching his birthday present–the best ever!–approach the automated gate. The seven-week-old Beagle puppy had run all the way from the front door of the house down the long drive to the gate with so much energy and enthusiasm eight-year-old Bennet had had trouble keeping up.
To think he’d believed he’d spend most of his birthday like any other day! He’d put an Agatha Christie paperback in his pocket that morning, in anticipation of visiting the meadow and the tree he loved to read under later.
Maybe Mom was right. Maybe I should have put the leash on him. But Poirot wasn’t a huge fan of the collar that came with him, though he did allow me to put it on him after I met him. I want him to get used to that first before I put him on a leash. I assured Mom I could keep up with him, and Dad even backed me by saying Poirot couldn’t leave the property because of the perimeter fence.
The dog now paused, cocking his head as he looked out through the narrowly spaced wrought iron bars of the gate. For an instant, Bennet wondered if Poirot would have attempted to wiggle through them if it was possible, but the Beagle didn’t seem interested in trying.
Poirot whined but only a little as he looked inquisitively across the county road that passed by the estate. Devil’s Forest was on the other side. Unfathomable acres of deep, dense forestland inside Wisconsin’s Northwoods were located in Erie County. This particular bit of it belonged to the Mino-Miskwi Native American tribe occupying Bloodmoon Cove. They forbade entry into its mostly unexplored depths, posting privacy signs all around the ten-foot high, barbed-wire-topped, electrified fence to keep people out of their acreage. Bennet’s older sister’s boyfriend liked to scare him by saying it also kept whatever horrors that lurked within those woods trapped.
Poirot whined again, this time deeper and more uncertain. Bennet bent down and scooped up the animal, holding the small, soft body against him, murmuring, “That, my good detective, is a whole mystery I doubt we’ll be able to solve even when we’re old enough. Come on, Mom’ll be worried if she can’t see us within range of the house lights.”
The instant Bennet turned away from the gate and what lay beyond in the darkness, the puppy seemed to forget its earlier apprehension and wriggled enthusiastically out of his arms. Bennet moved to set him down but was nowhere near the ground before the Beagle sprang free of him as if on a catapult. Laughing, Bennet ran after him, back toward the Queen Anne Revival style, stone house complete with gable, towers, balconies, and oriel windows that made it look like such a cool, small castle. His parents had commissioned it when they moved here while his mom was pregnant with Megis. The stone fence that completely surrounded the property–complete with the locked gate–had been their mother’s idea, though she would never answer the question about why she’d insisted on either.
Since it was his birthday, his parents would be a lot more willing to allow him to stay up late tonight. He and Poirot could spend more time together. The last thing he wanted to admit to himself was that he was tired after such a full day.
Bennet’s parents agreed to get him a puppy only if he was willing to do all the work caring for and training it to be obedient. They already believed he was mature enough. When he first asked them if he could have a pet, they’d tentatively agreed–if he put in the prep work. He’d spent the whole summer so far devising an obedience training program, after reading everything he could get his hands on, to learn the best way to do it. Even at only seven weeks old and their first day together, Poirot had responded enthusiastically to Bennet’s gentle, positive reinforcement of kibble and praise at the command of ‘sit’. His dad would undertake periodic check-ins to ensure Bennet was living up to his end of the bargain. He was taking no chances that his new best friend would be taken away. It hadn’t occurred to him even once he could fail in this endeavor. He and Poirot would endure and get along as famously as the detective the Beagle was named after and the fictional character’s sidekick Hastings.
Bennet had only just caught up, with Poirot pausing after entering the wide pool of light in front of the house, when the puppy’s nose caught a curious scent. It was off again, Bennet hot on his trail though beginning to feel the effects of so much activity today. Poirot hadn’t sat still for more than a few minutes since his parents had presented him with the gift puppy sporting a big blue ribbon. “The two of them should sleep well tonight,” his mom had commented during the birthday festivities in the backyard that afternoon. Her kind smile had been both indulgent and uncertain at seeing them together. Bennet knew she worried a lot because he didn’t have friends.
The Beagle was keeping his nose so close to the ground now, as they rounded the back of the house, that the pup had slowed considerably. Bennet did the same, creeping along while the scent hound did what it did best, sniffing out the trail. Bennet wasn’t sure of what, but he was quiet and managed to stay close without being too close to throw Poirot off.
After the puppy stopped abruptly, Bennet was surprised when he yipped in a friendly, excited way at his carefully sought after prize. Kneeling at the oversized living room bay window inside the dwarf burning bush hedge was a small, shockingly thin girl with the longest jet-black hair he’d ever seen. The mane fell past her waist. In the waxing gibbous moonlight, there was a sapphire blue sheen to it along with countless twigs and leaves stuck in the thick, ratty strands.
Her head whipped around at the sound of Poirot’s bark. Under the thick layer of filth covering it, Bennet saw her face was whiter than the ivory satin sheets on his parents’ bed. How had she gotten in? Their property was enclosed inside the fence…though he had to admit the fieldstone was mainly decorative, and someone as tall as his dad at 6’2″ and dexterous could have managed to climb up and over it with effort. While this girl certainly didn’t have the height to give her an edge, it wouldn’t be difficult for someone as thin and wiry as she was to be agile.
Her greenish-blue eyes were as large as those of an anime character, so he had no trouble seeing she was wary of both him and his dog. Speaking in a low, calming voice, Bennet said without shifting an inch toward her, “If you want to watch TV, you can come inside. My parents won’t mind.”
Rising up slightly, he could see the flicker of the television light inside the dark room beyond–the room where his 16-year-old sister hung out with her boyfriend Derringer because their parents wouldn’t let the two of them be alone together in Megis’s bedroom. “What they don’t know won’t hurt them”, his sister said often as if that provided some justification for breaking the rules.
The girl turned very slowly from the bay window, and Bennet sensed somehow she was about to bolt.
“Don’t run away,” he said soothingly. “You don’t have to be afraid. It’s okay. You can be here. We don’t mind.”
For a long minute, their eyes held while Poirot danced joyously around beside her. When she relaxed slightly, sitting back on her heels, the Beagle put its paws up on her legs, yipping in a friendly way. Bennet wasn’t sure if something in his voice had made her feel safe or if she’d fallen victim to the puppy’s irresistible charm. In any case, he suspected keeping her talking was wise. It might prevent her from fleeing. “Did you climb over the stone wall? I’ve always wanted to try, but my mom says I’ll break both my arms and legs. I think I could do it though.”
For a silent moment, she stared at him, and he wondered if she understood what he was saying. Then she said in a careless tone, “Climbing that wall was easy. It was nothing. I can climb anything, even the tallest trees.”
“Can you show me how?”
“You just said your mom won’t let you,” she pointed out.
Bennet almost laughed because that really was the heart of why he hadn’t tried thus far. “She doesn’t have to know.”
The girl simply looked at him without speaking at this overly confident pronouncement. Did she realize he tended to do whatever was right in most situations, as he was raised to? His parents had told him not to climb the fence and he hadn’t, as badly as he’d wanted to try. Let Derringer tease him for being a goody-goody. It wasn’t as if his sister’s boyfriend was the bad guy in any scenario himself.
“So…do you want to come inside?” Bennet asked again. “It’s close to bedtime, but Mom’s making us a snack. We could watch TV with my sister and her boyfriend.”
“They’re not watching TV.”
Confused, Bennet moved forward a few steps before it dawned on him he might cause her to dart away and disappear if he got too close. When he stopped, she didn’t react warily. She merely ducked further down again and turned half-toward the bay window she’d been peering inside before. Bennet crouched, shifting forward into the bushes until he was beside her, and then poking his head up so he could see inside, too. This close, he could smell something strong emanating from her–not entirely unpleasant, though there was that as well. He associated the scent with the mossy, woodsy outdoors and something else specific he couldn’t quite grasp at the moment.
On the loveseat, he saw Megis and Derringer making out. Again. Shaking his head as he lowered himself, he muttered, “Oh. Well, they do that all the time. They’d stop if we went in and wanted to watch TV with them.”
“What are they doing anyway?” the girl asked. “Why is she lying on top of him like that?”
Bennet laughed. “They’re kissing. I guess Derringer likes it when she lies on top of him. That’s what he says anyway.”
“I asked them the same thing a couple months ago and Megis said because they’re in love, and Derringer said ’cause it feels good.”
“Not sure. Never done it. I mean, my mom and sister and relatives and other people kiss me, but never on the lips.”
“Why not on the lips?”
Wow, she liked to ask questions, churning them out one right after the other without pause. “‘Cause kissing on the lips is for boyfriends and girlfriends. I guess.”
“Like your sister and that one?”
He nodded. “Have you ever kissed anyone? I mean, on the lips?”
Her eyelashes lowered so the thick, long strands lay like half-moons against her dirty cheeks. Quietly, she said, “Someone…kissed me once.” Her jaw clenched. “I didn’t like it.”
Bennet wasn’t sure what to say. “Well, no one should ever do something you don’t like if you don’t want them to.”
“I told him not to ever again.”
Poirot was getting bored, sitting without activity, and Bennet put his arms around the pup, stroking the head so he wouldn’t want to run off again, hot on another trail. Affection seemed as vital to the puppy as adventure.
The girl looked down and reached tentatively to caress the puppy’s silken head, too. “I like this one. What is it?”
“What do you mean? He’s a dog. A puppy. Or do you mean the breed? Poirot’s a Beagle.”
“Why do you call him that–call him Pwaa-row…?”
Bennet flushed, uncertain he’d pronounced the name with the right accent. The girl certainly didn’t. “That’s his name. I like detective stories, and Hercule Poirot is my favorite. Someday I want to be a detective.”
“Books…you read books?”
He nodded, laughing a little at the strange question. “Yeah. All the time. We’ve got a huge library. Mom says it’s better than the library in town. But then I guess it’s not hard to do that. The library’s mainly got the history of the town and a bunch of old books nobody reads anymore. And interlibrary loan. That’s pretty much the only way to get anything good from the library.”
“Yeah, you can go and see it sometime. You can see ours, too. Read anything you want. Let’s go in the house now, and I’ll show you.”
She looked at him, getting an uncertain look on her face once more. “I…I can’t stay here.”
“What’s your name?” he asked, figuring she’d questioned him to death; now it was his turn. “How old are you? Where do you live?”
He could feel the desire to run emanating strongly from her. Quickly, he said, “I’m Bennet. Bennet Ryan. My sister is Megis. I’m 8 years old and she’s 16. She treats me like I’m a baby, calls me her ‘pip’, but…she and Derringer…well, they include me. They spend time with me. Megis used to pretend I was their kid, and that used to annoy me, especially when she yelled to our parents, ‘Bennet escaped the playpen again’.” He used a high voice. He laughed at his own good imitation, but the girl didn’t join him or move, just listened and watched him. “I really like Derringer–Derringer Odwulf, her boyfriend. He’s fun and funny, cool, likes to play pranks and do crazy, fun stuff. Megis won’t let him do anything dangerous, especially when I’m around.”
Because she was listening so intently and clearly it was keeping her from darting off, he kept talking. “Our parents are Noko and Bast. My dad took over the Ryan Luxury Hotel chain my grandparents started, so it’s like a family tradition for everyone to work in the family hotel somehow.”
While he suspected she didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, he nevertheless kept rambling. He didn’t want her to leave. Okay, so he’d never been unpopular–maybe because it was an all-grades school, and his sister and her boyfriend seemed like the queen and king of popularity there–but he’d also never had any close friends. He hadn’t fit in with other kids since he started school, in part because he tended to be intellectually advanced–far above even the most intelligent classmates, or anyone in the school really. His parents had resisted allowing him to skip grades since it would mean he’d be further and further behind kids his own age socially. Fortunately for him, Bloodmoon Cove was a small, backward town. In their single-building schoolhouse, they didn’t know what do with kids who failed, let alone those who were far above the academic curve. They simply let everyone learn at their own pace either way.
More often than not, Bennet was prone to tucking himself into an isolated corner reading books rather than trying to be social. Sometimes it bothered him to not really have any friends, like today when his birthday party had been relegated to mainly grownups because he hadn’t had anyone his age to ask over. His mother had tried to get him to invite everyone in his class, but he’d realized that would only make him feel gawkier. Besides, he’d suspected what his birthday present would be–his first real friend outside the family. He wanted to spend as much time with that new buddy as possible today.
“It’s dark,” Bennet pointed out to the girl. “Do your parents always let you go out and wander after dark? Mom only let me come out at night because Poirot needs to learn how to go to the bathroom outside. I had to promise we’d stay within range of the house lights in the front.”
“Will you be in trouble?” she asked.
“Probably. But not too much. Like my dad says, we’re fenced in here. Not like I can get out, and no one can get in.”
Except this girl did, and with apparent ease. So that’s not exactly true.
Where in the world did she come from?
“What about you? Where do you live? Won’t your parents be looking for you and be worried?” he asked.
“No. I don’t have–” Until she stopped talking abruptly, her tone was completely flat, unemotional.
“Well, will you come back? Mom’ll be yelling for me soon. Can you come back during the day so we can play?”
Almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, his mother’s voice carried out into the night, asking where he was and telling him to come inside immediately. Helpless to the summons, Bennet’s head turned to watch as Poirot raced toward the sound. Although he also got to his feet, knowing he had to head that way himself, he hesitated, glancing back into the hedge. Shocked, he saw the girl was gone, like a puff of smoke.
Or maybe she was never there in the first place. Did I imagine her? Why didn’t I hear or feel anything, the slightest movement or motion, hear the bushes shaking at the very least, when I turned away? How can someone slip away without a sound when they’re standing that close to someone and kneeling in a hedge?
If she’d been there at all, the darkness had greeted her like one of its own, swallowing her from view so completely, craning his head to view all directions afforded him nothing. But he couldn’t risk his mom calling him in a second time or she wouldn’t let him bring Poirot out again after dark in the future.
Feeling keen disappointment at not learning where the girl had come from, let alone her name, he wondered if he’d ever see her again.
“Looks like you’ve gotten a good start on training him,” his mother commented as she prepared a bedtime snack Bennet would share with Megis and Derringer. For the second time that day, Poirot had obeyed his command to “sit” at the tantalizing appearance of a chew ball.
“Poirot makes it easy,” Bennet insisted, watching the puppy bat the ball away with his paws before launching at the toy and gnawing playfully before doing it all over again.
Bennet slid onto a stool on the other side of the counter where his mom stood, roasting chickpeas in a pan with one hand while the other coiled her long, reddish-black braid around her wrist seemingly unconsciously. Over the PA system his parents had installed when the house was built, a passionate renedition of “Le Onde” was playing.
Love of music–all types–had been a priority in his and his sister’s educations. He knew their parents were hoping one of them would want to play an instrument, something neither of them had pursued while growing up and regretted, but thus far Bennet and Megis hadn’t developed more than a strong appreciation for music themselves. One time when he was younger, Bennet had asked his mom if the reason music played in their house during all their waking hours was in appreciation of music. In response, she’d said something that resonated with him each time he thought of it since. “I don’t like the silence. It makes me think too much. If I wasn’t afraid you guys wouldn’t sleep with it on, the music would never be turned off in this house.”
The beautiful flow of notes wending their way forward, building slow and becoming increasingly more violent like the waves it was named for made Bennet edgy tonight as he stopped himself from doing what he’d always before done without thinking.
I can’t tell my parents about the girl, the way I tell them every single other thing that happens to me in my life, my every thought or idea. Because…because they’ll want to find out more about her. And maybe it’s better they don’t know. If they do, I might never see her again…
He wondered what made him think such a thing, but it wasn’t hard to backtrack and trace the thought to its origin. The girl couldn’t have strayed too far from her home, so she must live somewhere in the area. The problem with that was that there were no other houses near theirs. So where had she come from?
“You’re quiet tonight,” his mom commented on his unusual silence. Generally, he was talking a mile a minute this time of night, barely keeping up with his own thoughts.
“Does anyone else live near us? I’ve never seen any other houses nearby.”
“We’re alone out here, but town isn’t far.” She spoke as though believing he needed reassurance that they weren’t completely isolated, her deep brown eyes gentle.
“Does anyone live in the forest?”
His mother looked slightly surprised at the question. “No. The forest is owned by the Mino-Miskwi tribe, and they don’t allow anyone inside.”
His mother and both her parents before her were members of what was the very scattered, diminished Native American tribe who’d settled in Erie County long ago.
Bennet had known this, but it still didn’t sound logical to him. “Why not? What’s the point of owning a forest if no one’s allowed to go into it?”
“Once upon a time, the forest was logged to make money for the tribe. That’s why they purchased it. But that was more than a hundred years ago.”
His mom looked down again at the pan, shaking it to keep the chickpeas from burning. She murmured in a tone that gave nothing away, confirming the strong sense Bennet had that she wasn’t comfortable with this topic. “There were some deaths. The council got superstitious and–” She looked up with a reassuring smile. “–now they don’t let anyone inside. The electrified fence keeps trespassers out.”
“So nobody lives near us?”
“Not for miles and miles. Why do you ask?”
He shrugged, acting like he had no reason for his interest, even as he was sure she knew he felt exactly the opposite. But his mother, like her parents before her, “didn’t like to think about that unpleasantness”, so she let his reluctance to divulge pass unquestioned.
If no one can live in the forest and there are no other houses near us for miles, then where did the girl come from? She couldn’t have walked miles to get here but, if she did, is she walking back home in the dark right now? That doesn’t sound safe, given the highway, wild animals, whatever’s in the woods… But whatever’s in there is trapped behind an electrified, 10-foot tall, barbed-wire-topped fence. Unless…
He shook his head at Derringer’s oft-hinted-at assumption that things less than human lived in that forest.
Dismissing at least the possibility of supernatural involvement, Bennet realized at that moment what an uncomfortable thing worry was. Had he ever spent actual time in his eight years of living worrying about anyone or anything? Compared to the gnawing ache in his gut right now, the answer was a resounding ‘No!’.
Who is she? Is she all right?
His dad came in, wrapped his arms around his wife from the back, towering over her tiny but curvaceous 5’5″ height, and asked–in an exaggerated Australian accent–what was going on. Bennet’s mom laughed, commenting affectionately on how very nostaglic he was for his homeland tonight. Bast hadn’t really lived in that country for most of his adult life.
Bennet found himself drifting from their flirtateous conversation and actions, aware that he felt too anxious to sleep, the concern for the girl driving away the earlier happy fatigue he’d experienced after such a good day. He had to talk to someone, and the only two people who made sense at the moment were his sister and her boyfriend.
After the snacks and tart cherry drinks were delivered to the living room on a tray and the teenagers fell on the nourishment like scavengers, their parents left them for their own private nightcap in the kitchen nook overlooking the backyard.
As soon as the elders were far enough away, Bennet told them about the girl who’d been watching them from the bay window outside while they made out on the sofa. Megis’s face, so like their mother’s, filled with deep pink color about being spied on. Normally, Bennet might have enjoyed seeing her flustered, but tonight he rushed past the usual enjoyment of mild torture to ask them the same questions he’d asked his mom in the kitchen.
Derringer laughed, suggesting in a sinister voice, “Maybe it’s a bride of Cain Amala. Every year at least one girl goes missing on Devil’s Highway, kidnapped by Cain Amala so she can become his bride,” before popping a handful of chickpeas in his mouth and chewing.
Bennet’s mouth fell open at the odd thing his sister’s boyfriend had said. Derringer was prone to want to shock those around him–either for a laugh or for the theatrical effect. At 16, Derringer was nearly as tall and muscular as Bennet’s dad, with a long, angular face and more hair on his face than most of the senior males at the school. His cool goatee made his cheekbones look even more like they were carved from stone. His reddish-blond hair was thick and wavy, sticking up normally without the aid of haircare products. His hazel-green eyes always looked like they were laughing at whatever was going on around him.
While she usually allowed Derringer’s teasing, this time Megis jumped in to scold her boyfriend. “Don’t try to scare him. It’s bedtime. Do you want him to have nightmares, especially on his birthday?” She turned back to Bennet. “Don’t listen to a word he says, pip. It’s just an old legend.”
“An urban legend, to be more precise, my sweet,” Derringer added, one slash of red eyebrow raised for affect.
“What is a bride of Cain Amala?” Bennet asked.
The teenagers argued for a protracted minute that made Bennet fret more. Finally, when he begged to hear the story, Megis relented on allowing Derringer to proceed.
“First some background on Bloodmoon Cove is needed,” Derringer started dramatically, folding his tapered fingers together, elbows on knees. “As you know, I’m the eldest son of the second richest family in Bloodmoon Cove (your parents being the first), Scandinavians who came over to America from Norway in 1925.”
Derringer’s mom was the president of the only bank in town while his dad was the chief of medicine at the small yet surprisisingly busy hospital. Derringer had grown up among some of the oldest families in the area, and he knew all the history, tales, and rumors mainly because his uninhibited, gregarious grandmother Holly loved telling them to anyone who would listen.
“Of course, you already know all about Holly.”
“She’s a völva,” Bennet piped up. “A clairvoyant who can predict the future.”
“That she is. Glad to hear you’ve been listening. And she’s kept many a room riveted with her tall tales of the supernatural.”
Bennet remembered his mom commenting on that fact that the Odwulfs considering themselves devout Episcopalians didn’t seem to bother anyone.
Derringer smiled a little grimly to convey he was ready to begin the heart of the story. “All the trouble in Bloodmoon Cove started 125 years ago, when the Mino-Miskwi tribal elders got involved in some bad mojo. They performed a black magic ritual at their sacred place, Spirit Peak, at the top of Bloodmoon Mountain. The medicine man in the tribe talked to spirits, and whatever he did during that ritual opened a door–a portal of some kind that ripped a massive hole between worlds. Overnight, all the tribe’s elders disappeared without a trace. What was left of the band scattered like sheep, leaving Bloodmoon Cove and the Old Ways far behind. Those left broke from the Maji Miskwi–bad blood–and took a new name to signal their conversion.”
Bennet was aware, as he knew his sister was, that he was part of that dwindled group, one that didn’t actually function as a community anymore and never had as long as anyone could remember. Their mother’s parents had left Bloodmoon Cove in the great exodus along with countless other tribal members, most of them never to return. What had once been a thriving area had become a level above a ghost town in the time since. Their mother had come back against the advice of her parents, in large part because her new husband Bast was wildly fascinated with the legends that defied concealment in this place.
Derringer continued, “When the veil between the world of the spirits and the world of the living was ripped asunder, supernatural beings of every shape, size, and abilities flooded in. Those humans left to bear the mark of the Maji Miskwi birthright were conscripted to keep the secrets of the past and protect the town and any area of Erie County from the creatures that came out of the veil tear.”
“So it’s true Bloodmoon Cove is haunted?” Bennet asked, wondering if Derringer was just repeating stories intended to scare kids into submission by adults or used as dare challenges amongst youth to see who was the bravest.
“Stop trying to frighten him,” Megis rebuked, putting a reassuring hand on Bennet’s shoulder.
Bennet shook his head. “I’m not scared. I just want to hear everything.”
“Well, Bennie, some people believe the town–and maybe the whole county–is haunted. Others think the Nation just got religious and, as a result, dispensed with the Old Ways that became forbidden to them. In any case, that brings us to the urban legend of Cain Amala. It’s actually a Bible story. Do you have a King James around here somewhere? That’s the most menacing version.”
‘Menancing‘ not ‘accurate‘? Taking note of the difference, Bennet ran to get one. For a long few seconds after Derringer had the brand-new, almost never opened leather-bound copy in his hands, he rifled through the pages, trying to find the passage he wanted. He cast an eye toward Bennet to make sure he was still spellbound before he said, “Ah, here it is: ‘And Adam knew Eve his wife–‘”
“What does that mean?” Bennet interrupted. “Of course he knew his wife. Who doesn’t know his own wife? Or was this an arranged marriage?”
His family didn’t attend church much, if at all. The few times they’d gone, it’d been because Derringer’s family was doing something religious–like a baptism, wedding, or funeral–and had invited the whole town to come out. Derringer’s laugh was so full and rich, Bennet found himself laughing along helplessly even as Megis scolded her boyfriend yet again. While Bennet had heard this passage before, though he couldn’t remember where, he didn’t actually understand what the word “knew” meant in this context. Laughing was his way of covering the humilitating educational failure. “So, kid, they’re in love. They, you know, slept in the same bed.” Derringer’s grin was as crooked as they came. “And they enjoyed it.”
“Keep it up,” Megis warned Derringer, conveying even without saying the words that she’d send Bennet to bed without hearing the rest of the story if he didn’t stop playing.
Abruptly, Bennet understood the use of the word “know” in this context. “Oh, so they fooled around?” Megis and Derringer weren’t the only couple Bennet had walked in on to find kissing with one on top of the other, and often. His parents did a lot of fooling around, too.
Megis halted the commentary on the topic with a powerful, unspoken jab at the Bible, and Derringer quickly began reading the Genesis Bible passage:
“…and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand; When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me. And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.”
“The legend of Cain Amala started right after the veil was torn between the two worlds,” Derringer said when he looked up. “God banished Cain and some believe he was thrown into an alternate dimension after the portal was ripped between the worlds. In this place, he became Cain Amala, the banished, a being afforded divine protection from premature death. And he’s become hated and feared but untouchable in this place. In the Bible, because Cain was known as a murderer, feared so much so that, wherever he went, everyone who discovered his identity would try to kill him for his crime, God put a mark on him to protect him, promising to avenge him sevenfold if he was killed.”
“Wait, why didn’t God like Cain’s offering but he did approve of Abel’s?”
Derringer’s face and tone became dead serious. “‘Cause it wasn’t what God asked of mortals. Cain didn’t follow instructions. He wanted to do God’s will on his own terms, in his own way. Since the Fall, when man rebelled against God, a blood offering was required as a gift of repentence to God to atone for sin. The Bible says, ‘Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission’ and ‘It is the blood that makes atonement for the soul’.”
“How do you know all this?” Megis demanded of her boyfriend. “Don’t tell me you actually listen in church?”
His earlier solemn aura changed completely back into his usual jester’s flair, feigning offense at her words. “Yes, Holly drags the whole family to church every Sunday, but I’m not an idiot. If I have to be there, I at least try to learn from the experience.”
“Even if that’s true, she spends the rest of her non-church time indoctrinating everyone in the ‘wisdom’ of the occult. Is she trying to save your soul or damn it?” Megis wondered.
Derringer laughed. “You love my nan as much as everyone else.”
“That doesn’t answer my question–”
“But what is the mark of Cain?” Bennet interrupted to ask. “What did it look like?”
“Some say Cain had a ‘tattoo’ in the shape of wonky cross.” Derrigner reached over to the table for a pad and a red marker. He slash-drew just what he’d said–a three-dimensional wonky cross with ragged ends on all four sides. “You see, in Bible and ancient times, names and symbols meant something. Nobody really knows what the mark God placed on Cain looks like, if it’s visible, but some speculate the mark was an actual Hebrew letter sealed on the face or hand, where it could be seen easily by everyone and served as a sign not to commit the same offense Cain carried out by murdering his brother. So the Hebrew word for ‘sign’ is this wonky cross.”
“Okay, I’ve never seen anyone with that mark,” Bennet commented, “but I guess that’s the point. He’s in hiding to protect himself. So who is a bride of Cain Amala? What is that situation about?”
Derringer was holding back another grin that could be heard in his tone nevertheless. “Guess it’s not hard to imagine, but being banished with everyone who sees you wanting to kill you on sight can make it hard to find a wife. Must’ve been a lonely existence. But, after Cain was pulled through the veil, the legend tells us that a group of zealous humans who feared Cain, feared what he was, where he’d come from, swore to murder him. And they did make an attempt. Or they succeeded. Maybe he died and was resurrected. Who can really say? In whatever his state of being, Cain fled deep into Devil’s Forest, where it’s said he grew bitter that God had truly abandoned him, taking away the protective mark, and a second time he rebelled when a creature of fire and brimstone that might have been Lucifer came to him. This evil being promised him renewed immortality in exchange for yearly human sacrifices during the harvest–the more slaughter, the higher the favor throughout the rest of the year.
“Given the choice between permanent death and immortality, the resentful Cain made a pact with the demon and became Cain Amala. It was then a thunderous voice that could have been the holy God’s Himself called out for the entire town to hear. The voice claimed there would be a 125-year reckoning for Cain’s sin and betrayal in pledging loyalty to a demon. The prophecy speaks about a beginning and an end or vice versa, a transformation, the end of the world in which fire and ice battle, and then utter desolation…or retribution for the damned, depending on whether good or evil wins.”
“Prophecy? An actual prophecy?”
“Maybe, but more and more of it’s been lost with time. It was never written down, the only knowledge of it passing down from generation to generation. Now we only know the basics.”
“Holly told you this, didn’t she?” Megis guessed.
Derringer didn’t respond to her interruption, but went on, “In any case, Cain Amala knew true exile from that point on. In his loneliness that’s stretched over the past 125 years, he’s had a lot of time to consider what he’s lost–God’s seal of protection–and what he’s actually gained. Beholden to a creature that demands a swimming pool of human sacrifices, once a year Cain Amala emerges from the woods seeking another bride he can ‘know’. She’ll bear him a child with the rest of his brides every year, and those babies and any females too menopausal to reproduce anymore are sacrificed at the brimstone demon’s annual harvest.”
Bennet could see his sister was building up to stopping this grisly little tale, so he cut her off by saying, “But you said the girl I met was a bride of Cain Amala. That doesn’t make any sense. How can she be? She couldn’t have been any older than I am. And you said the brides are girls who are kidnapped from Devil’s Highway. If she’s not a bride, then what is she? All the babies born of Cain Amala’s brides are sacrificed, right? So she’s not a bride and she’s not a sacrifice. So who is this girl?”
“Ahh, you have been listening, haven’t you, Bennie? You’re right. She can’t possibly be a bride of Cain. So who and what she is becomes clearer,” Derringer said, obviously for the dramatic affect. “According to the legend–”
“According to your grandmother–” Megis inserted.
“Shut up, you, you’re ruining my tale,” Derringer said and went on without pausing. “According to the legend, sometimes a very rare child is born with the mark of Cain and is spared from sacrifice.”
“Spared for what?”
“My gran says ‘to bring forth the immortal Cain’.”
Megis lifted a warning finger, and Derringer seemed to visibly revise his forthcoming words. “Cain Amala is supposedly reborn when a female and a male (one of them with the mark of Cain) sleep togeth–well, come together and know each other. That’s how Cain is made immortal.”
“The girl I met didn’t have a mark on her face or hand,” Bennet murmured, suspicous now that Derringer was playing a joke on him.
“That you could see in the dark anyway. Maybe there are special conditions when the mark is made visible. Maybe it’s like the language of Mordor, only revealed by fire.”
Megis let out a sigh that matched her aggreived expression. Her patience with Derringer’s attempt to scare the pants off Bennet had met its limit. “That girl isn’t a bride of Cain or a bearer of an immortal creature any more than I am. It’s all just a big, stupid, old myth. She must live around here somewhere, though I can’t imagine where. The closest neighbor we have is that crazy old drunk who lives just outside the boundaries of Bloodmoon Cove on Devil’s Highway. What is his name? Marcus Schu–Schultz?”
“Malcolm Schlock,” Derringer filled in helpfully.
“That’s right. So she must be related to him somehow.”
“I’ve never heard of him having kids, let alone seen anybody around his property, which should be condemned. I think his wife died or she left him before they ever got legitimately married or something. You hush now, woman. You’re wrecking the spell I’m weaving here.”
“You hush.” Megis glared at him while Bennet wondered how much of this tale was true.
“Does a girl really go missing every year from Devil’s Highway?” he asked. His family lived on that exact county road. But he’d never heard anything like this before.
“Actually, that is true,” Derringer told him. “My gran was a good friend of the former sheriff and his wife–”
“Of course she was,” Megis said, rolling her heavily-made-up eyes.
“Really? Every year a girl gets kidnapped from there? Doesn’t anybody think that’s strange?” Bennet asked curiously.
“I’m sure they do,” Megis said, “and the girls are probably found eventually, too.” His sister shook her head at Derringer, then she turned to Bennet. “In any case, pip, you should tell us if you see this girl again.”
“You won’t tell Mom and Dad? ‘Cause they might do something to make her go away and never come back.”
“We won’t tell Mom and Dad, at least not until we can figure out what her story is. You understand that if she’s in some kind of trouble, we have to help her, right, Bennet?”
“What kind of trouble could she be in?” he asked, not even able to imagine what that could entail. But it was true he didn’t want to believe she could be.
“We won’t know until we ask her. In the meantime, if you see her, tell her she’s welcome here and she doesn’t have to hide. We want to meet her.”
Derringer had leaned back on the sofa and was eyeing him in a comradarie-mocking way that was uniquely his own. “So what’s the big deal about this girl, Bennie? Was she naked? Did she speak a different language? Never seen you so fascinated by a human being your own age before.”
Bennet shrugged, uncertain what had intriguing him so much, beyond that it was after dark and she was out there on her own, hiding in shadows. She’d also been so dirty, she might have been buried in forest debris and uncovered just recently. He realized now what her smell had reminded him of: A fertile old forest with crushed pine needles, wet moss, the mold and mildew of earthy decay embedded deep in the trees and soil. Death and life mingled. Not unpleasant…nevertheless, unnerving.
Before long, their parents returned to shoo Bennet upstairs so he could get ready for bed and suggest politely that Derringer think about heading home soon. As Bennet heeded orders, he heard his sister berating her boyfriend again for potentially giving her little brother nightmares, and she wasn’t wrong about that. In his dreams, the girl reappeared, covered in sticks and leaves, dirt and filth, her long hair so ratty, it was hard to imagine how anyone would allow such a condition to occur. She was a wild savage who lived in the woods, lurking under cover of bushes with her gigantic eyes wide and mysterious, staring out at him curiously. On her cheek was the blood red, glowing mark of a rugged cross.
When he woke with a start, Bennet couldn’t say why he was terrified. When he’d seen her under the bay window, she hadn’t scared him. He’d worried more that he would frighten her away. Nothing about her made him want to bolt. Yet he was shaking, breathing heavily, his mind rattled by the images in the nightmare. In the darkness, Poirot was curled up against his side and whined sleepily as if worried about him. As soon as Bennet calmed himself by petting the dog, the Beagle slipped back into his pleasant dreams of chasing butterflies and rubber balls.
Who was the girl? Where did she come from? She couldn’t be a wild primative who lived in the woods. Derringer’s crazy stories about a bride of Cain Amala or someone with the mark of Cain who would bring forth the immortal were meant to terrify him, that was all. She’d known what a television was, what books were. What a mom and dad were. Was old Malcolm Schlock her father, a drunk who didn’t pay his own daughter any attention because he was angry at God for taking his wife from him after she gave birth to their first child or something?
At the time his sister’s boyfriend had asked him about it, Bennet hadn’t had an answer for his curiosity about the girl. But now it makes perfect sense. My fascination with her is simple. I want to solve the mystery of who she is and where she comes from. To do that, I have to see her again.
As she rushed away, a soundless being one with the darkness, the girl resisted her every instinct to look back to see the young, bright boy and his dog Pwaa-row just one last time. It was late, much later than she’d realized. She’d been too caught up in watching those living inside the fine house. Always when she came here, she inevitably fought with what she knew had to be. She couldn’t stay. She could never remain in this place forever. Leaving, going back to where she’d come from, was the exact opposite of what she wanted every single time…
She ran across the road. The moon wasn’t as bright tonight as it was some nights, but she was like the ferocious creatures that lived in the forest. She could see in the dark as easily as one of them while they meticulously and cruelly stalked their prey. Mom said I command them, that they came to this place, following after her like minions, yet they never attempted to rescue her because they were subordinate to her but not loyal. Or was that just another one of her insane tales?
Even without bright light, the girl easily found the sprawling tree on the other side of the spiky-topped fence that hemmed the woods in. The massive branch reaching over the fence that belonged to the bur oak tree would take her back into the forest. Steeling herself, she put a hand out, remembering the initial time she’d touched the electrified fence as she always did, but the memory had faded when that shock had never come again.
Effortlessly, she climbed the chain links, experiencing no pain. When she could swing up to the enormous limb that would allow her to inch forward, she found each treacherous handhold to drag herself suspended over the barbed wire to the other side, where most of the old wood sentinel had rooted itself in for centuries. After she lowered herself to the next strong branch that would allow her drop down to the ground without harm, she easily landed on her feet.
Standing to her full height again, she lifted her hands and murmured the words her mother had taught her: “I am the exiled, protected by my forebears. Open to me. Speed the journey. Shelter and guide the path to my destination.”
Instantly, an odd light appeared ahead of her. The “tunnel” that surrounded her was oddly both invisible and visible. Pivoting instinctively in the direction that would take her back to the ancient ruins of a house, she saw the blue glow of ethereal walls ahead, escorting her where she needed to go to reach her destination, even protecting her from the sounds without. As she walked, she palpably felt the forest around her, alive and vicious lurking nearby, but nothing could touch her when she was inside the tunnel. She’d learned that from experience. She was protected inside–from creatures that inhabited the forest as well as from unwanted, prying eyes–even if some of those those were trying to safeguard her. She’d also come to realize at some point in the time she’d found the conveyance that, inside this tunnel, time was dilated. A distance that might normally take hours could be traversed in a matter of minutes. While she had no way of truly gauging the phenomenon, let alone anyone to discuss it with, she’d become certain of the fact the first time she’d used it. None of the books she had access to could explain it. But that was the story of her short life.
The girl took a deep breath and quickened her pace until she was nearly running, knowing she’d stayed far too long on the outside. Despite the tunnel and how quickly it would speed her travel, she would be late. Once she got as close as she dared to the place she dreaded, she’d still have to run the last part of the journey to the crumbling, black house.
She would never forget her earliest explorations of the forest, after the older boy told her it was safe for her to roam but not to go too far. Like an insect that’d spent agonizing time trapped in the spider’s web believing it would be held there until the monster came and devoured it alive, she’d suddenly been set free. Prior to that, her only joy in life had been in spending time with her mother. For hours on end her mom would tell her tales that frightened and ensorcelled, those the girl believed in with her whole heart, until she found the strange books in the house. Before she succumbed to mindless babbling and screams interspersed with broken sleep, the older boy’s mother had read to her from the books until the girl herself discovered in rapture that she could read by herself. She learned to write that way as well. And she read the treasures over and over, wrote her own imaginings in the blank books that were in the pile where she’d uncovered the treasure. Every year, there were more books, newer ones with fascinating worlds contained within them. Some of them, differently bound, even had curvy handwriting inside using carefully chosen words written on black or blue lines that conveyed so many emotions the girl could barely grasp.
When she was very small, the girl also loved it when her mother brushed her hair. Her soothing, frost-chilled hands brushed until the long, thick strands were no longer matted and ratty. While she did this, she spoke softly. The girl learned of adventure and romance, love, compassion and healing, and sometimes of dire treachery, harsh punishment, a heart frozen inside the fiery body of a monster, and harrowing flights across glacial wastelands, through portals. Returning to a long-forgotten home was impossible.
But there came a time when her mom almost never came out of her fugue–to tell her tales, to brush her hair, not even to speak to her. Instead, year after year, her belly silently swelled with the growth inside her. Ushering forth a life–the spiders’ prey–that brings her closer to death…
Remaining by her mother’s side was no longer soothing, ceased in fact to give her any peace at all. The girl’s mind had begun to turn on itself, seeking escape, any light… Then the older boy had set her free, told her to discover what lay outside the ruin of a house. For a long time, her eager explorations gave her the solace she’d needed to survive. But not long enough.
She’d wondered often why the older boy cared, why he wanted to release her, but she didn’t like the answer to that question. Not when she felt his gaze on her at all times, even when she was as far from the house as she dared to go each day. Sometimes she could hear his breathing, smell the dirt and fungus that clung to him from his foraging, and her heart would pound hard with terror until she could hardly breathe. He’d taught her so many valuable things that helped her care for herself and her mother, gave her gifts of delicious food and fine clothing–the best of all the new items that came in once a year. The books alone…
Yet he frightened her. Always, she felt there was something wrong about how he looked, the way he stared, the way he watched her, the dark thoughts she knew were in his unfathomable mind about the two of them.
When he saw her misery again closing in, forcing her to withdraw inside herself as her mother did, he asked her why she was unhappy.
“I want to see the light…” She’d gestured to the books that depicted a bright blue sky, the sun brighter than anything she could even imagine. For as long as she could remember, there was only darkness in this crumbling house that was nothing more than a prison. Rodents and bugs entered freely. Here, there was no warmth, no comfort, no purpose. Was there a world outside? She’d gone so far on her own, searching for more, seeking the light, for a comparable reality that was in the pictures in the books she’d studied religiously for as long as she could read and dream.
Early the next morning after he’d posed the question of her unhappiness, the older boy had taken her to a path, given her the analog watch that was his most prized possession. He’d taught her how to use the timepiece as a compass by setting it in on her palm with the 12 at the top. When she left in the morning, he told her, she would go in the direction of three o’clock, which was east, and eventually she would reach a fence and beyond that a road if she continued to follow the time. She would find a different world once she emerged. She couldn’t stay in that outside world, he said. She had to come back each night.
“Will Cain punish me if I don’t come back?” she’d asked, her throat dry at the thought.
“You can’t risk his wrath. Return often. If you’re gone too long…if he discovers you’re gone…he won’t like it.”
But the older boy’s words didn’t sound right to her. Cain didn’t care about her, barely noticed her. When it was still dark in the early morning, he rose and went deep into the forest, sometimes with the horse and plow or wagon, where he’d tended the fields he planted. Sometimes, she’d followed him, staying hidden each time so he wouldn’t sense her presence. She’d been stunned the first time she saw the fruit of his inexhaustive labors. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get anything to grow out of the barren earth that resisted his every effort. Yet he never gave up.
Such an unlikely farmer when there was no love in his heart. He didn’t return from his frustrating task until it was again night. She and the others who lived in the house might not have existed for how little concern he spared them. For as long as the girl could imagine, the older boy had taken care of all of them. He brought wood for the fire to cook food. He gave them their share, brought them water from the nearby stream and herbal medicine if they were sick.
That first day she’d walked the path that three o’clock pointed to for hours, she’d vividly remembered the frightening tales her mother had told her of sojourning in an neverending wasteland, never finding the right route to take her home, only finding portal after portal to take her to another barren landscape. The girl had been terrified with each step that she was going in the wrong direction, would be lost forever, trapped in a loop far from any other soul. The house had never been a place of happiness for her, but to wander endlessly, no shelter in sight, bitterly alone, was worse. The older boy had told her there were predators in the woods that came out when all the gentle creatures were fearfully hidden and asleep.
When she’d finally given up hope of ever finding the light she was searching for, she’d heard her mother’s voice inside her head almost as if she was there beside her, guiding her, seeing her in her plight at that very moment. “My sweetling, put out your hands. Find your power. Bring forth the safety you’ll find inside yourself.” The voice had been hoarse, rusty from disuse. But the girl recognized it.
Gasping, she’d lifted weak, unsteady hands, unsure of what she was doing and saying, but, in the almost total darkness of the forest, she’d suddenly seen something. Felt it. Whatever it was emanating outward so that, far ahead of her outstretched hands, she saw an etheral blue glow that encased her like a protective bubble once she stepped inside it. The sounds of the forest around her, the feel of the older boy’s gaze on her even after all the distance she’d gotten from the house, disappeared almost entirely. Inside this tunnel, she was safe. She was isolated. The forest, the threats, the prying eyes were far away from her now. And there was the promise of sun and cerulean sky ahead. The blue light of the tunnel beckoned her, eager to lead her where she wanted to go. Somehow she knew it and believed, and she ran toward it, toward a different world that saved her, gave her light and purpose and joy such as she’d never experienced before.
But each and every night, she had to return to the house in the forest. She couldn’t risk the wrath of Cain. The tunnel provided what she needed there, too. While she remembered walking for endless hours (nearly eight, according to the watch) that first time with the older boy’s pocket watch as a compass, never getting anywhere that she could tell, she had no way of knowing how close or far away she’d been from the perimeter fence when she finally gave up and her mother’s voice had come into her head to urge her to get up and use her power. But now the journey from to and from her chosen place where the older boy couldn’t watch her required about an hour inside the time-distillation tunnel.
The older boy can’t come into the tunnel, I think because it’s mine to find. Finding the tunnel is…my power. If he could use this tunnel, would he have given me the watch compass? I know he hates that he can’t follow me, the way he used to when I roamed close to Cain’s house. That’s good, too, because I don’t want him near me. Ever. But especially when I’m out there in the brilliant, beautiful world I wish I could live in forever.
Despite being far from it now, the girl couldn’t help casting a wistful glance back toward the house Bennet Ryan and his family lived in outside the fence. She tried hard not to give in to the agony of separation she felt whenever she had to leave that place. In the years she’d been leaving the forest and going there, hiding so she could watch the people who lived there, she’d never gotten close enough to them to be spotted or sensed.
The property always seemed to be lit up by the sun or artificial light. The people who dwelled there smiled often, enjoyed each other and their lives so it was hard to imagine them ever unhappy or unfulfilled. A warmth that attracted her emanated from each and every one of them, and she’d fantasized countless times about becoming a part of their circle. Yet she hadn’t dared expose herself to them in case they shunned and made her go away.
Meeting the boy Bennet had been a dream come true for her. Of all those who lived here, she’d watched him the most. Previously, he’d been alone, walking, wandering, reading, mostly inside his own head and thoughts, almost oblivious to the world around himself.
She hadn’t expected him to discover her the way he had, nor to engage her the way he had instantly. He’d been…gentle, kind, clearly longing to make her feel safe. That in itself should have scared her. The older boy–a being so dark and shrouded–did the same, yet she’d never felt anything good stemming from his actions. Even as she accepted his generous offerings, she’d shied from him instictively. She couldn’t escape the sense that he was dangerous and allowing him to get too close wouldn’t end well.
Bennet was different. The bright aura around him was soothing and warm. He was kind. But did she dare try to seek him out again, allow him to see her so they could talk more?
The longing hurt her throat and made her tears hot, then wet. She didn’t understand what was happening to her until she remembered her mother telling her that, when babies cried, moisture like rain spilled from their eyes. They didn’t know any better or they would be silent, fearing Cain’s notice. “Not all tears are bad. Some are instinctual. They help us survive. They can even bring about good things.”
The girl didn’t need to be told that that wasn’t always the case, though. There were horrified tears, shrill tears of terror and death. There were also stillborn tears, like the ones she felt beneath the surface when she was in the haze that came once a year and she’d learned to hate. During that time, she was paralyzed, unable to move, yet she felt a million things in slow motion. Overhead, she could almost see the red sky during that time shrouding every inch of the world under its bloody canopy. The sight was always menacing and almost unreal.
From the position she was was forced to lie in helplessly during those times, she’d listened to the chanting of the worshipping minions and the crackling of fires burning with more and more logs being thrown on them until voracious bonfires roared in the temple. The light produced from the fires cast ominous shadows over the crumbling alabastar columns. As if from a distance or a dream, she could hear the cries rising from the babies, torn from their screaming mothers’ arms. The sacrifices…
Supine in the bed of the wagon when the sky turned blood red, the girl was helpless to resist looking up at the raised altar where Cain held the sacrificial knife, bringing it down without pity or remorse, or the even-higher throne seating the brimstone god that looked down upon the abundant harvest offerings, breathing in the rising scent of carnage in heady satisfaction.
Despite knowing she should be terrified, the girl nevertheless dozed, clasped in the grip of the confusing red mist inside her mind, hovering over her head in the sky. Abruptly, the scent of roasting meat was almost too much to bear. Her stomach growled, begging for a taste of the charred flesh…
The girl broke free of her thoughts–surely not actual memories because they were more like nightmares where she was sleepy to the point of being lethargic, unable to wake up fully or to stay awake–when she came to the place she’d chosen to re-enter the woods from the tunnel. As she stumbled out of her run, lowering her hands, she clutched her aching middle. Overhead, the screech of owls and bats hunting filled her ears again, loud enough to be painful. She was close to the house now, and she knew she was late, later than she’d ever been before. Surely Cain would be back by now and locked inside his room. He wouldn’t see her so he couldn’t punish her. Yet, even as she gasped, she forced herself back into a run through thick trees and darkness the moon didn’t penetrate much if at all.
The familiar acknowledgement that the older boy was lurking nearby, having sensed her, spurred her to a faster run. As she approached the house from the back, arms shot out from behind a tree near the horse pen and grabbed her. A hand covered her mouth so the stench of mushrooms was almost enough to make her gag. Instinctively, she started to fight his hold. His mouth against her ear, the dark one whispered quickly to calm her, “Cain is in the stable. We have to go in the front.”
If he hadn’t let her go as soon as he spoke the warning, she would have attacked him. She could feel her throat tighten as though to scream, but she fought the urge, worried what had came about last time she screamed would happen again.
Silently, the two of them slipped around the house and had only just entered the kitchen from the front door, closing it behind them, when Cain came through the back. His black, evil gaze rested on them in surprise, then displeasure. In the past, they’d always already been in their places at this time of night, where they were out of his sight, out of his mind and notice. For a terrifying moment, the girl wasn’t sure what would happen. But then he broke eye contact, grumbling, and disappeared into the room that belonged to him. He slammed the door behind him. The locked glass case next to it that held the sacrificial dagger rattled at the force until the lock on Cain’s door crashed into place, resounding in the silence that followed with a recent memory.
Images filled the girl’s head as a sudden wind blew down into the kitchen from holes in the roof, stirring the dirt and debris scattered everywhere. Neither the girl nor the older boy moved, but the moon did then, a bit of its light streaming into the one-story house. The roof had gone unrepaired for so long, the girl only noticed the holes when it rained or snowed. Once upon a time, the older boy’s mother used to complain about the cold here, but the girl and her mother had never really felt it the way she and the other girls seemed to. Now another wind kicked up, shoving the glass that had once been inside the windows that had shattered across the ruptured floor. Recently, the ground had quaked so badly–
Her throat hurt at that particular memory as she stared at Cain’s locked door.
She frowned at his dismissive reaction to seeing them here in his path. She couldn’t have predicted that of their captor. Nevertheless, she was pleased. Cain hadn’t punished either of them. Did he know they’d been out in the dark for so long? Didn’t he care? His displeasure at seeing them was a given. But ultimately he’d disregarded them and their infraction. What did that mean?
As she pondered it, the older boy moved to the table. “I saved you food,” he said softly.
He did the foraging and hunting while Cain wasted his time with crops that never grew. That explained why the older boy was so dirty, his skin was mottled black. Countless years of digging, gathering and chopping wood, killing animals, skinning them. The blood and grime were forever under his nails and on everything he touched. Always, she got the choicest bits of his labor, though she’d never fully understood why. Whenever she tried, she’d stopped herself so she couldn’t consider his feelings for her. That was too much, too horrible.
Tonight, even the sweet, ripened berries she loved most of all didn’t give her the pleasure she usually experienced in them as the nourishment barely filled her achingly empty stomach. She ate the food almost without noticing the flavor, good and bad, warily eyeing the boy, who watched her eat in the unexpected moonlight.
What was so different about the boy Bennet, other than his brightness? she wondered. He was male, like this one. He was almost as large as this boy was, but nowhere near as thin. She couldn’t be sure Bennet was younger yet she suspected he was. For the first time, her curiousity made her ask the older boy, “How old are you?”
“Twelve,” he told her, as though wondering why she’d asked this tonight, never before.
“How old am I?”
She’d been born in this house. That much she knew. This place was all she could remember of her life when she was much younger and rarely left her mother’s side.
“Do you have a name?”
His head inclined, but hardly at all.
“What is it?”
He swallowed. “Khal.”
“Why do you have a name?” The girl, her mother, his mother, the girls and babies they bore…all unnamed.
“I named myself,” he told her, sitting with his back against the wall near the front door.
“Why don’t I have a name?”
His teeth clenched. “Names mean things. They have power.”
The girl scowled at this enigmatic answer, drawing the last of the berries out of her palm into her mouth where she sat on the rugged stool near the table. When she looked at the skin of her hand, she saw it was stained red from the fruit, looking almost like blood in her filthy hand. “What does your name mean?”
“Deathless,” he said softly.
“How do you know?”
Khal didn’t answer and some instinct warned her not to ask him that particular question again. “What does Cain’s name mean?”
“To acquire or possess something.”
She couldn’t imagine what significance that held, yet she did notice something compelling. “Cain calls us all of us ‘the sacrifice’.”
“Ultimately, that’s all we are to him.”
She swallowed, reaching for the nuts on the debris-cluttered table surface. Black walnuts. She didn’t like them, but they were food and they would fill her stomach. “How do you know how old we are?” she asked a little later in the silence while he watched her with his creepy, hooded eyes. She shuddered at recalling the number of times spiders had crawled out from his thick hair and walked around on his face and neck, his hands and arms. Khal hadn’t seemed to even notice. The spiders didn’t bite him, didn’t frighten him at all. That was how the girl knew Khal was bad. Because spiders were dark and evil and they loved him…
“My mother’s calendar. It has every day of a year. Today is July 21st. I’ve kept track since she showed it to me.”
You took it from her. Like you steal everything from the girls who come here. You take their things, rifle through them. You give me the things you know I’ll like, and everything else goes on the mountainous heap in the corner…
“That’s how you know how old you are, how old I am?” she asked.
“What day was I born?”
“September 3rd. Eight years ago. Just before the harvest.”
Those words made her tense, and she closed her eyes as she chewed slowly, trying to block out the horrors that the mere word conjured. “The babies cry just before the harvest. They cry and scream when you put them in the spider room with their mothers…before–”
I was born just before the harvest, just as all the babies are. But I’m still here. None of them are.
Her hands were shaking when she took the strips of dried meat Khal had set out for her on the table. She pushed them into her mouth, wanting to scream at her uncomfortable thoughts. They made her as uneasy as the way Khal did when he stared at her in the silence. Sometimes it felt as though his eyes had been on her forever, as long as she could remember, heavy as weights, as penetrating as a white-hot skewer.
I hate him. I didn’t realize that until a few weeks ago, when he launched himself at me, pinned me to the ground and put his dry, cracked lips on mine. As I fought him with all my strength, I knew then that I hate him with every fiber of my being. I loath and dread him.
The mouthful went down painfully as she recognized what Khal had been doing to her that day with his lips on her was the same thing Bennet’s sister and her boyfriend had been doing in the living room tonight, only the girl had been on top of the boy instead of the other way around. Bennet’s sister hadn’t fought the boy. She seemed like…well, like she was enjoying what he was doing to her. “They do that all the time,” Bennet had said. “They’re kissing. It feels good. Kissing on the lips is for boyfriends and girlfriends.”
The girl hadn’t enjoyed what Khal had done to her. She’d screamed, long and loud, stopping only as she’d watch Khal somehow being thrown or thrust back, far from her. In the aftermath of him flying away from her, the feel of his scabby mouth touching hers had resonated inside her like an echo, a shudder, and her scream became a wail. He’d attempted to rise until that happened, looking like he was going to come back and try the same thing again, but he’d fallen down hard when the ground shook hard enough to crack the stone floor, shatter the glass in the windows, pierce ear drums…in response to her caterwaul. She’d heard an almost melodic tinkling sound as she’d watched him cower on the ground, his hands defensively over his ears. Seeing him subdued brought regret and silence from her.
“Don’t ever do that to me again,” she’d said when she could speak again.
And he hadn’t. He’d turned to look at her, his small eyes wide with something she’d never seen in them before. Fear. When he’d removed his hands, she saw blood was coming out of his ears.
But she recognized the look she saw in his eyes now as he stared at her silently, slightly wary, as if he wanted to understand her. She pushed more of the meat into her mouth, unwilling to leave any scrap uneaten. She’d never known a time when she wasn’t hungry, nor could she imagine ever truly being full. Food couldn’t be wasted. Her stomach hurt all the time from hunger pangs. Everyone here was starving. There was never enough to go around.
“What makes you…happy?” she asked quietly, the question he’d once asked her and she’d never bothered to return before.
He didn’t answer again, but the response was there in his lingering gaze. She made him happy, and that didn’t make any sense to her. Because I hate him. I hurt him. Without meaning to. And sometimes because I need to when I withdraw from him, deny him, reject him, berate him. How can he not feel how much I abhor his touch, being in his presence, the focus of his gaze…?
His silence stretched as she ate, making it clear he wouldn’t answer. But then he repeated the question he’d asked her so long ago: “What makes you happy?”
“Light,” she said instantly.
“There is no light here,” he said simply.
She’d known that. Always known, long before she could understand such things. “Cain didn’t punish me when I came back after dark tonight,” she said quietly, testing Khal, wondering what he thought about that.
Reluctantly, so much so he lowered his piercing gaze from her, he said, “He won’t punish you.”
“Why? He punishes my mom, your mom if they’re outside their rooms when he comes back.”
“How? Why? Cain calls me a sacrifice, just like all the others.” Khal still hadn’t looked at her again.
“It must be because…because you bear the mark.”
“His mark. He won’t hurt you. You’re special.” His voice dropped in volume even further. “I don’t know if he can hurt you. Or me.” After a long pause, he added almost angrily, “You have to be here during the harvest.”
He’d jumped subjects so quickly, she wasn’t sure what they were talking about anymore. “What do you mean?”
As she suspected he wouldn’t, he didn’t answer her inquiry, nor did his eyes did seek her out again. She was surprised when he was the first to rise and lie down on his bare mat near the cold fireplace used only for cooking. He turned away from her, leaving her to shocked wonder.
The girl stuffed the last of the meat into her mouth and stood while she chewed, moving to the door of her mother’s room. She took the key down from where it hung nearby and unlocked the padlock, then let herself inside the darkness beyond before returning the key to its place.
For a moment after closing the door behind herself on the threshold of her and her mother’s space in the house, she wondered if Khal would perform the nightly ritual of locking them in. She waited breathlessly, half-hoping the door would stay unlocked all night. But, when she heard Khal’s bare feet on the stone, she rushed quickly to her mat next to her mother’s on the cold, hard floor. When she lay down, she heard the padlock move into place and snick closed as he locked it down. Her mother didn’t wake. Instinctively she turned toward her in her sleep and put her arms around her, drawing her with icy hands against her contradictorily extreme heat and the bulge of her abdomen, where a sacrifice grew inside her, just as one did in all the other females in the house now.
Is this one different? Why was I different? Special? Why is Khal? Or does he just want to believe that?
The girl swallowed, feeling hot tears behind her eyelids. Am I a sacrifice? Cain calls me one. Yet Khal is right: Cain clearly feels nothing for me but disdain, yet he’s never hurt me. Never punished me. Can he? Does something prevent him or forbid him from harming me the way he does the other girls after every harvest, putting new life inside them while they scream? Do I really have a mark–his mark? Where? Did he put it there or was I born with it? Why does Khal also believed he’s privileged?
Sleep eluded her this night as she listened to her mother barely breathing, heard the rats and mice padding around the room, foraging. In the deathly quiet, she could almost hear the deadly spiders, their abdomens bloated, uncoiling, spinning, luring plentiful prey into their webs, sucking them dry, inside the spider room below the trapdoor. Sometimes she thought that was the place she hated the most. But then the nightmare of the temple and the red haze that fell down from the sky reminded her shrilly of which was worse. The screams. The sacrifices. The hunger in my belly… In any case, the harvest wasn’t for months. The eight-legged horrors wouldn’t be needed until then.
Khal had said, “You have to be here during the harvest.” Why would he say that? Now? Months in advance? What was he implying?
From the first time Khal had sensed her unhappiness and told her she could explore the woods around the house if she didn’t go too far each day, he’d encouraged her to enjoy the few freedoms she could get–far away from this dark life. He’d done it again years later, when she could no longer be distracted because she knew every inch of the area surrounding the house and there was nothing left for her. No reason to go on. He’d given her his most prized possession and… He let me go, telling me to come back each night.
He knows I’m miserable again. The only joy in my life is leaving here, seeking the light outside the forest on the other side of the road.
Over and over, his words came back to her: “You have to be here during the harvest.”
Can I leave this place…stay away…until I have to return for the harvest? Do I dare?
The thought of seeing Bennet again, his dog, talking and learning, always basking in the bright light, thrilled her in a way that brought forth a gush of tears. Happy tears, not sad. Bennet had no darkness inside him. She didn’t fear him. The sound of his voice gave her purpose.
I want to go back to him. And maybe I can. Cain won’t punish me. As long as I’m here at the harvest…I’m free.
The thought was as terrifying as it was unbelievable. Did she dare?
The girl woke to find the door open. She crept out, saw the kitchen empty, food on the table. Khal had left her the best pieces of meat while everyone else received nearly inedible scraps tossed on the floor just inside the doors they were locked behind. Their water cups would have been splashed with fresh water by Khal, but hers on the kitchen table was actually crystal clear and cold, fresh from the spring.
As she ate quickly and drank in gulps, she wondered where he was. He usually waited to leave for hunting and foraging until she was up.
Why does he serve Cain? While Cain disappeared before first light and didn’t return until nightfall, only sometimes coming back with a new female, Khal spent his days getting water from the stream, hunting, foraging, gathering firewood to cook, feeding the ones who almost never came out of their rooms because they were locked there. He did everything he could to keep them healthy enough to give birth to the sacrifices. Nothing more, nothing less.
Who was he? If he was as special as he said he thought he was, why did he do any of it? Did Cain punish him if he didn’t? He also claimed Cain couldn’t punish him, as he couldn’t her. She’d never witnessed anything that could be called more than admonishment or careless disdain. For as long as she could remember, Khal had simply done the things he had each and every day–what Cain wanted him to, she assumed–without question or comment. Why?
The girl took what was left of her choice albeit meager meal into her mother’s bedroom, told her to eat and drink, but her mom barely stirred at her voice. Once upon a time, she’d been afraid to leave her mom. Afraid to be away from her. Afraid of what would happen to her beyond the house, what would happen to her mother if she was left alone to Khal’s inadequate care. Rarely did her mother break free of her fugue anymore, and the girl had come to accept that she wanted to die. More than anything, she hoped to simply waste away and never have to wake up again. She doesn’t try to protect me anymore. She’s past the point of caring what happens to herself, to me or to the life that grows in her every year like a tumor to be cut out and burned in the fire. Literally.
It would be so easy to fall into the same despair and, countless times, the girl almost had. But one thing kept her going: The little bit of freedom she’d been granted. That was enough to live for.
The entire time she was in the tunnel she found, racing toward the light with exhiliration and lightness she hadn’t felt the evening before–moving toward the darkness then–she thought about what Khal had told her in their time together. What she wouldn’t give to never have to go back, to stay in the sun’s glory, the open air free of any clustered, suffocating trees, where people who were good and kind and happy dwelled. I want to be one of them. I want to be someone else. But I don’t even have a name.
Khal’s words whispered into her mind. “I named myself…”
She was on the branch that would allow her to shimmy over to the other side of the fence and climb down when she heard a moving vehicle. Staying back under the foliage, she saw the gate of the perimeter fence on Bennet’s family’s property open, a car drive through, turn onto the highway. She knew from past experience that there were two adults inside the car–maybe Bennet and his sister’s parents–and that they would be gone most of the day, into the early evening. An older woman had already arrived before their departure to watch over the house and children in their absence. This female was as kind as Bennet was and sometimes the girl thought she knew about her. She would find food lying out on the backyard table or on the one in the distance from the house where it shouldn’t have been, for seemingly no one. The times the girl had taken it, she’d eaten with guilty relish. Before yesterday, there had been no domensticated animals like the one called Pwaa-row for the woman to feed.
Once the car had disappeared from sight, the girl lowered herself and ran until she could cross the road. The gate was already closed, but she found the place around the side of the house where she could easily climb the stone wall using another tree. This wall wasn’t even half as tall as the chain-link one around the forest.
Even before she was squatting behind a hedge, she heard the sound of barking and laughter. Bennet and Pwaa-row. She shifted along her hiding place, trying to get closer to them so she could watch, but before she could orient herself, a nose, then a snout, pushed through the bushes. The girl fell back trying to get away. The little dog jumped onto her stomach, ran up her chest and licked her face. He was so friendly and excited, she didn’t feel fear even for a second.
“See, Pwaa-row, I told you she’d come back.”
The girl looked up to see Bennet standing over them, a wide smile on his clean, attractive face. The expression activated grooves around his mouth that made her feel almost bubbly–light as air. She’d always watched him and his family from afar before and the thought of anyone discovering her had frightened her. Yet what she was experiencing now was the opposite of trepidation. “Did the dog tell you I wouldn’t come back?” she asked, not sure she should be thinking what she was: I never want to be away from this place, these people…this bright boy…ever again. That was the most terrifying thing of all.
“Not exactly,” Bennet said, laughing.
As she sat up, holding the wriggly puppy against her, an awkwardness crept between them. He must have felt it too because he asked, “Do you have a pet?”, as though he wanted to get rid of the sudden weirdness between them.
“No. Not really.”
“How can you ‘not really’ have a pet? Either you do or you don’t.”
“There’s a horse… He’s old. He’s always been there.”
“At the house,” she said simply. “The horse’s name is Hansom. He’s very gentle. But he doesn’t catch anything in his teeth, like your pet does.”
Bennet laughed and spun the colored disc in his hand that incited his dog to try to catch it in his mouth again. The girl rose to her feet, feeling strangely diminished at her full height next to the boy. He was a full head taller than her.
“I’ve always wanted a horse,” he told her, glancing at her shyly and looking away again quickly. “I’ve wanted one since my dad told me about the Brumbies in Australia that are feral.”
She didn’t understand much of what he said, but she wanted to hear more anyway. Before she could ask what a “Brumbies” was and where Australia was, Bennet said, “Your horse has a name.”
“It’s not my horse. It’s…” Swallowing, she realized she couldn’t tell him that. “So what if the horse has a name?” she asked irritably instead.
“Well, that horse has a name, my dog has a name, I have a name. Do you have a name?”
“I named myself…”
The word “sacrifice” came, little more than a whisper that got louder at the end. She wasn’t sure anyone heard her because the dog was barking so loud after he dropped the disc he’d retrieved at their feet.
“Ice?” Bennet asked. “Your name is Ice?”
The girl held, alarmed, hearing Khal’s whisper in her head: “Names mean things. They have power.”
“That is such a wicked, cool name.”
Her throat was dry when she pushed the words out. “You…like…it?”
“I love it. Man, I wish my name was Ice. Or Fire. Blaze–”
“Bennet is a nice name.”
He seemed surprised when he glanced at her. Then he shrugged. “I like it, but everybody calls me Ben or Bennie. I only like my name when it’s Bennet.”
She frowned. She’d never had a name. A name seemed more like a gift to her than anything else she’d ever received before. Bennet had called her Ice, and she wanted to be a person worthy of such a “wicked cool” name.
“I also have a last name,” Bennet said. “Ryan. Which, ironically, is sometimes a first name, but in this case it’s a last. Do you have a last name? Is it…Amala…or Schlock?”
Her gaze flew to him, but he was bending to get the disc from the ground because the dog was so excited, it was urging him to throw the toy again.
She swallowed and, after he’d thrown the disc, he looked at her again. She shook her head at him.
“So who are your parents?”
Parents. Mother and father. The ones who take care of and raise children. No one takes care of me. My mother is barely existing. I take care of her in my own way. Khal…does something like take care of all of us, but he’s not my parent. What is he? Why have I never wondered before if there’s a connection between us? Bennet has a sister. Is Khal my brother? But brothers don’t kiss you on the lips…
Stubbornly, she shook her head.
For some reason, Bennet stopped his relentless questioning and said easily, “Oh. Well, Megis and Derringer want to meet you today.”
“Meet? No… I…” She shouldn’t have even let this bright boy come in contact with her. If anyone knew about her… She just knew adults finding out about her would be dangerous.
“They promised not to tell anyone. Not that our parents would even mind, I don’t think. We’re considering having a picnic in the gazebo at the back of the property for lunch. I have to ask Aria. But she won’t mind. We usually eat lunch on the run in the summer anyway. She’s used to that. The only meal my family eats together is dinner.”
Again, his words didn’t make much sense to her. “Who is Aria?”
“She’s technically related to my dad. Somehow. Anyway, she comes and takes care of us every day while our parents are at the hotel working. Aria is good at everything. She cooks and cleans, fixes things and keeps the grounds looking amazing. She doesn’t live with us. She has a place in town, but she’s here more than she’s there so Mom and Dad always say she might as well move in, but she won’t. When it’s raining or snowing bad, Mom and Dad insist she stay here though. She has a room and everything.”
“Is she your…servant?” Is Khal Cain’s servant?
Bennet shouted, “No!” in such a shocked tone, the laughter that followed it seemed out of place. “She’s family and we love her…only my parents pay her.”
“Yeah. It’s how Aria makes a living, taking care of everything here.”
The girl shook her head in wonder. “What’s that thing you said–about having a picnic at a…a…?”
“Gazebo? It’s an octagonal, open-air building. We have one behind the house about a half mile from the house, along the path. Have you seen it?”
Her face filled with hot color. She’d spent a lot of time there, especially when it rained and she didn’t want to go back to the forest early.
“It’s okay,” Bennet said. “We don’t mind. I’m glad you used it.”
She wondered why it was all right, but then he grabbed her hand and said, “Come on, I promised I’d show you the library.”
She was so shocked, she didn’t fight him. The sensation of being touched was only mildly like the memories she had of her mother brushing her hair, which had been soothing and pleasant. This was both calming and…electrifying but not in a painful way. She liked this. It was nothing like the very few times Khal had gotten past her natural defenses against him and touched her.
Bennet had pulled her through the front door before she broke free of him. By then the damage was done. She was finally inside this house, something so grand and beautiful, so full of light, she couldn’t do anything but stare up and around her with her mouth wide open in astonishment.
People lived here. This was like the warm hearth and bright places in books that the characters called home. Bennet’s family took care of it. Things meant to be outside couldn’t get in here, not unless someone deliberately opened the doors or windows.
She was in such paralyzed awe that, until Bennet said, “This is my friend Ice. We’re going to the library,” she didn’t realize someone else was in the entryway of the house with them. The older woman Aria, no doubt, the family-not-servant who was loved and invited to live here yet refused. The woman was smiling as she closed the door after them. She was very tall and plump in a way some of the females in old-fashioned costumes in the books she’d read were. In a tone kinder than any the girl had heard before, Aria said, “You know the rules, young man.” The words seemed scolding and yet there was such affection in them, there was no shame.
Bennet sheepishly backtracked to the front door, where there were mats and shelves with more shoes than she’d ever seen in one place at a time. He slipped out of his summer shoes, his gaze on Ice’s feet. The oversized boots she wore weren’t for summer and they frequently made her feet hot, but there were enough holes in them to act as ventaliation.
Realizing she was supposed to do the same thing, she slipped out of her own foot coverings, and Aria seemed shocked and even scandalized at the sight of her dirty, bare feet, yet she smiled once more and said, “I’m very pleased to meet you… Ice? What an unusual name. Have you had breakfast?”
Without conscious thought, the girl looked down at her own hands, seeing the filth and stickiness from the dried, honey-covered meat and blood-red berries she’d eaten that morning.
“Well, why don’t the two of you wash up while I get your breakfast? Have you already fed your puppy, Bennet?”
“No. He wanted to go out right away this morning.”
“Well, let me at least get him some fresh water. Come along into the kitchen when you’re ready for your own breakfast.”
The girl watched the old woman turn around and walk through an alcove to another part of the house. Before the not-servant even disappeared, Bennet was grabbing the girl’s hand again. “Come on, we can wash up in here.”
He dragged her into a small, dark room off the side of the front door. After he reached around to turn on a light, he went to the sink. The girl watched him pull the silver handle up, water gushed out, then he pumped the top of a flowery dispenser on the sink nearby. Thick, foamy white stuff came out. He scrubbed his hands together, spreading the white all around for a few seconds, then put his hands under the mini waterfall. The soap was nothing like the brown cakes Khal made with hardwood ash and animal fat.
Bennet looked back at her, and she understood that he expected her to do what he was doing. Curiously, she sidled up next to him, taking his place at the sink when he backed away and reached for the cloth hanging from a bar just behind the open door of the room. While she was shorter, she managed to reach with some effort. She put her hands under the water, noticing it was warm, not ice cold like all the water she’d ever plunged her hands into before had been. The soap was fragrant, like the wild flowers she’d discovered in the woods.
She imitated Bennet’s earlier movements to get a few puffs of the pure white foam, but within a second he was saying, “You need more than that.” She pumped on the top again and got more and more. As she mimicked the scrubbing the boy had done to get his hands clean, she lifted her head to look at the rest of the room, but her gaze never left what was directly in front of her.
A scream slammed into her throat at the sight before her. A person with a face so dirty, it might have been rubbed in the the blackest, thickest, vilest mud, stood before her. The dark, tangled hair was even worse. The scream in her throat rose an inch as her mouth opened to allow it past. The dry, chapped lips on the face in front of her broke open. Suddenly the floor under their feet was rocking alarmingly.
“What’s going on?” Bennet shouted, grabbing the door handle to keep his balance.
Something clicked inside the girl’s mind, and she clapped her mouth shut tightly, wincing as she tasted blood from her cracked lip. Just like that, the quaking stopped. She understood then that she was the person she saw in front of her. She’d never seen her own reflection before, but she knew her hair was long and thick and black and frequently so dirty and matted, her mother hadn’t been able to get a brush through it without a lot of effort when she was younger.
And the ground shaking… The same thing had happened the night Khal leapt on her, put his foul, dry mouth on hers. She’d screamed. He’d gone flying away from her. The kitchen floor had rumbled beneath their feet, the stone breaking in several places. The kitchen windows had shattered. Blood had come out of Khal’s ears.
Did I cause all that?
She didn’t know for sure, though a part of her had suspected but wouldn’t consider deeply. If I’d allowed the scream in my throat at the sight of the person in front of me to escape right now, the same thing would have happened. Damage would have been done–to the house and to Bennet.
“You finish up. I’ll come back,” Bennet said, hurrying away.
The girl was shaking, but she knew the worst of it was over. Nothing more would happen.
She looked back at the reflection before her and realized this fancy mirror hanging from the wall was like the ones written about in some of the stories she’d read. What was staring back at her was her own appearance, her normal appearance, what Bennet and others saw when they looked at her.
She couldn’t have imagined it prior to this, but seeing the state of her own uncleanliness, her untidiness, even her smell bothered her. Though Bennet had washed his hands, he’d been clean, his face and hair neat, clothes old and worn but otherwise unsoiled. He’d smelled like dog and sunlight.
Why had she never considered how she looked and smelled? Especially since she’d looked at Khal, saw his grimy, vile, polluted appearance and abhored the sight and scent to the depths of her being for so many years?
Why wasn’t Bennet afraid of her? Offended looking at her? She’d scared herself.
What must it be like to be so clean all the time?
She pumped more and more soap from the flowery container over her hands, scrubbing ruthlessly at her face. Finally, she started to see white patches emerge until all the dirt was gone. Her face was bright pink and shining from her harsh treatment as she’d scoured and rubbed. Her eyes were immensely large in her face, a startling blue-green color. Cutting through the grime had helped, but not enough. There was something scary about her, just like with Khal’s appearance.
More than anything, she wanted to plunge her whole head under the water and use the soap to get the leaves and mud and twigs out of her hair. But she already knew there was nowhere near enough soap in the dispenser to get it, let alone the rest of her body, clean and smelling sweet.
Tears flooded out her eyes, which were stinging as her face was. I want to be white and clean, light instead of dark with filthiness and stench.
Hearing Bennet’s approach, she reached for the towel and put it over her dripping wet face.
“Aria doesn’t know what that earthquake was ei–” Bennet started to say when she looked out from the towel. “Whoa…” He was staring at her face as if he’d never seen it before. And he hadn’t.
The girl swallowed. “What?”
“Nothing… I just… Wow, you look completely different when you’re clean.”
The words shamed her, and he seemed to realize how mean he’d been when his face turned red and, flustered, he muttered while turning away, “Come on. Let’s get breakfast. Then I’ll show you the library.”