The rain poured heavily as the town congregated by Pastor Michael Davis’ grave site. The church’s new leader, Pastor Scottson, stood by the grave reciting an empty eulogy. Sally stared at him and suppressed the urge to bend over and vomit.
She looked away from the man. Her tears mingled with the rain. She had been forced to carry a secret that was already tearing her apart. She nearly felt as guilty as the murderers, but all she could was feel helpless as she stood there mourning in the downpour.
Michael’s parents held one another’s hands as they wept. His father rested a hand on his tombstone. An angel engraving made it stand out from the other stones in the graveyard. He would be remembered and missed forever, but no one could forgive the terrible waste of a good life.
When the funeral ended, the townspeople slowly departed, leaving the grieving parents alone at their son’s final resting place.
Mama approached Sally and they linked their gloved hands together. Their misty gazes met.
“This is such a sad day,” said Mama. “I have missed you.”
Sally nearly choked on the painful lump that had seemed to lodge itself permanently in her throat.
“I’ve missed you, too,” she managed to say.
“We will visit soon.”
“I would like that, Mama. Soon.”
Papa strode up to them with an expression that made Sally want to slap him. She gritted her teeth and averted her gaze.
“I am very sorry that we lost such a good man,” he said.
“Oh, I am sure you are.”
“Why the contentious tone? Pastor Davis would have scolded you for that.”
Sally stared at him and shook her head.
Jeremiah took her hand. She glared up at him. He wouldn’t stop hovering over her every time they went outside of the house.
“This has been very hard on Sally,” he said quickly. “I’m sure that she didn’t mean anything disrespectful to you, Sir.”
“Surely not,” said Papa flatly.
“We ought to get out of this rain,” said Mama. “Take care on your travels home, young Jeremiah and Sally.”
“Good-bye, Mama,” called Sally.
Mama smiled softly before turning to walk arm and arm with Papa back to their carriage. He glanced at Sally over his shoulder and a suffocating wave of grief overcame her.
She yanked her hand out of Jeremiah’s grasp and started toward Michael’s grave. She needed to be with him. A week ago he was still alive and helping anyone he could.
“Oh Michael, I am so sorry.”
“Sally, we have to go,” said Jeremiah.
“No. I can’t leave him yet.”
Her heart ached at the thought of leaving him there. After his parents left, he would be alone with the rain. He never did like the rain. Her final moments with him were worse than any nightmare. She could have done something to stop the brutality, but her daft little head prevented her from forming any logical thought.
“I could have saved you. I am so sorry.”
“Now, Sally!” demanded Jeremiah, taking her hand again. “Leave them to be alone with their son.”
He squeezed her hand so hard it hurt. She would visit the grave another day to say a proper good-bye to him alone. She followed Jeremiah back to their rented carriage. Inside of the coach, she clasped her gloved hands together. They hadn’t stopped shaking since the incident.
The horses carried them away from the graveyard and she stared out the misty window at the grey skies. She could never run far enough to escape the tragedy.
“What are we going to do, Jeremy?”
“You’re calling me Jeremy now?”
She shrugged. “Yes.”
“There is nothing we can do if we want to stay alive.”
His words sent a wave of chills over her.
“Maybe not. A week ago we couldn’t imagine what he and his friends are capable of doing.”
“I will never trust him again.”
“That being said, we have to pretend that it never happened. It’s the only way to keep living life as before.”
His cavalier attitude made her want to slap him. She balled her fists.
“Who else are they going to kill?” she asked.
“No one if they stay out of their way.”
Sally let out an exasperated sigh. He was so willing to give up and allow the snakes to get away with murder.
“Do you realize how crazy this is? Michael is dead. Murdered. Jeremy, I don’t want to live here anymore! My father is a liar and a killer. How can you make me stay here?”
“You don’t have a choice, Sal. I have worked hard to get this cattle farm to be sustainable and profitable for me and that directly affects you.”
“Don’t call me Sal.”
“Don’t call me Jeremy.”
Sally hit the cushioned wall of the carriage.
“If you want me to treat you like a woman instead of a girl, you’re going to have to start growing up.”
“At least I know what you really think of me.”
“I’m sure you have your thoughts about me, too.”
She met his gaze.
“I hate you and I hate all of the deacons. Pastor Scottson is no pastor. How can you want to stay here? Farm or no farm, this place is possessed with something and I don’t want to find out what it is.”
Jeremy shook his head.
“You can feel however you want to feel about me, but don’t let anyone else know about your thoughts toward the church elders.”
“You really do think I’m daft.”
“Sally, I am serious. I can’t just pick up and leave a farm that size. It would take months to move everything or sell it and then we’d have to start over. I’m not doing that.”
“So you can just sit there and pretend nothing happened. One of your friends gets murdered by the trusted leaders of this town and you don’t even flinch?”
He gritted his teeth and ignored her.
“Who is Jacob?” she pressed.
“I don’t know.”
“No? Then maybe you can do Michael one last favour and find out who Jacob is! He is the man that our friend died for.”
Jeremy stared out the window. Even after the worst tragedy anyone could imagine, he would not acknowledge her.
“I will ask,” he said at last.
The coach stopped in front of the farm house and Jeremiah helped her out. He only did nice things for her when someone else was watching. When they reached the front door, Jeremy stopped to glare at her.
“That is the last time that you tell me what to do. Is that understood?”
“Or else what?” snapped Sally. “You’ll hit me? You’ll kick me out of the house? What?”
The look in his eyes. It was contempt.
“I will never hurt you,” he said.
He went directly to his room. She closed the front door and locked it. Another layer of guilt settled over her. She had just asked the same man who hadn’t ever touched her if he was going to hit her. She knew better than to accuse him of that. Then again, maybe he would snap and become a monster like her own father.
She prepared a small pot of black tea for herself to take her mind away from the bleak world for a moment. She sat by the window and thought about her times spent talking with Michael and for a few blessed moments, she was back to being just a girl walking by the river with her friends.
The church was silent as every eye rested on Pastor Scottson’s steely gaze. Jeremy thought he heard the scrambling of a field mouse beneath the pews. The pastor’s cold words hovered in the air as he attempted to hold the onlookers under his spell.
We are in a season to kill anyone who stands against our righteous way of life.
Jeremy dared to glance at a few of the people sitting around them. They seemed to be equally in shock by the icy tone of their new leader. Or perhaps they were just afraid. In any case, the threat was clear. If anyone attempted to undermine them or their way of life, they would suffer the same fate as Michael.
Pastor Scottson looked over at Sally’s mother, who sat at the piano waiting for her command to play the final hymn. Jeremy did not miss the look in her eyes as she silently judged the stiff man. He wondered if she knew something about Jacob.
“No closing song today,” said the pastor. “I bid you all farewell until next Sunday. May God’s wisdom and grace surround all of you this week.”
“Amen,” boomed the men.
A few of the men cleared their throats as everyone silently arose from the pews and marched outside. Sally walked abreast to Jeremy as they made their way to their horse and buggy. They said nothing until they well on their way home.
“Well, that wasn’t exactly a Pastor Davis sermon about Jesus’ love,” muttered Jeremy.
Sally buried her face in her hands. There were times when Jeremy longed for the comforting touch of a woman, but he was still married to a kid. He could only imagine the trauma of a young girl witnessing the murder of a beloved mentor, but he had lost Michael as well. They were friends. As a man, he didn’t have the luxury of lying in bed for half the day and weeping.
He wished that she could be less selfish. Some of the town girls were already mothers at eighteen. Soon she would be eighteen.
“We need to find out who Jacob is and why he came here. I’ve waited all week for you to speak with one of the deacons, but all you seem to do is spend your whole life thinking about cows.”
“Cattle,” corrected Jeremy.
He swallowed down a stream of biting words. She needed a swift belt to the ass sometimes, but he had sworn an oath to protect her. As much as he despised her sometimes, he never wanted to see her get hurt let alone be the cause of it.
She seemed to think very little of his way of life and that needed to end. He had spent the last week working on the farm and tending to the cattle because that was what made him feel the most alive. He would never be a well-dressed merchant man working in town.
“The thought of being around any of those men alone makes me feel ill,” said Jeremy.
“I will ask about Jacob in time. You forget that Michael was a friend of mine. His death has been a terrible loss for me as well.”
“I know and I’m sorry. I just… I don’t know what to do.”
“Perhaps a visit with your Mama and sister is in order. You spend a lot of time alone in the house.”
“I’ll visit her tomorrow. I’ve needed to see her for a long time.”
The seriousness in her voice pulled gently on his heart strings.
“I hope that you do go see her. It’s not good for you to be alone all the time. What happened to your two friends?”
“They haven’t paid me much mind since we got married. I don’t know if they’re jealous or if I said something to offend them. Maybe both.”
“That is childish of them.”
“Yes,” sighed Sally.
Jeremiah glanced over at her. The sunlight brought out the red highlights in her dark hair. She looked like a painting. She faced him and he studied her heart-shaped face.
“What is it?” she asked.
She possessed a sort of elvish prettiness from time to time when she wasn’t being completely annoying. She tilted her head with a perplexed frown which brought a smile to his face.
“Why are you smiling at me?” she asked.
“I was just admiring you.”
She quickly looked away as the beginnings of a blush formed on her delicate cheekbones.
“It feels strange to have the sun shining after such a sad, cold message,” she said.
“Sally, I will speak with the deacons about Jacob and do my best to find out everything I can.”
“Just be careful. Don’t make it seem like you’re gleaning for information.”
“I’ll be careful.”
She brought her cat-like green eyes to meet his again. There was a look in them that he hadn’t seen before.
“Good,” she said.
The farmhouse came into view and he thought back to his encounter with Jacob. He wondered where the man had retreated to.
“I would like to show you a place I used to go to a lot with Gabriel when he was here,” said Jeremy.
Sally bounced in her seat.
“Oh! I could pack a picnic for us. It would be nice for us to get away to somewhere different. Maybe we could try having a good conversation.”
She was pretty when she smiled.
“That was the idea,” he chuckled.
“But only after we find out who Jacob is.”
The front door burst open and a dull thud drove a shudder over Sally’s little body. Desperate, loud breathing sounded from the entranceway as the damp air blew through the house. She had never longed so much for Jeremiah to be there. The sound of a man panting and crawling through the kitchen made her wish that she knew how to use a weapon.
“Any weapon,” she whispered.
Jeremiah must have wanted her to die considering that he had never showed her how to shoot a gun. Papa never taught her; he said that men were meant to protect women. He told her often as a little girl that she would never have the independence of a man. The authority of her father would transfer over to her husband when she was married. It was the Biblical way of things. She gritted her teeth at how foolish that way of things was when a woman was left alone to fend for herself.
Another thunder clap answered an intense flash of lightning. Unlike the storm outside, she would not be able to hide away from a man crawling around inside. As she listened to the moaning stranger shuffling around, her fear molded into a strange form of fascination.
Whomever it was, he sounded upset. Or wounded.
She pulled herself out from under the bed and shook off the fear before it paralyzed her. She found her footing and the room swayed. She leaned against the wall and clumsily made her way to the kitchen. His back was to her as he crawled on all fours. Blood and rain drenched his white shirt.
“Are you… are you alright?” she called.
He dropped onto his stomach with a loud groan and rolled onto his side to look at her.
“Oh… oh my God!” she cried.
She covered her mouth at the sight of the familiar handsome, but ghostly face.
“Pastor Davis!” she cried.
She ran to him and took his shaking hand with both of hers.
“I will fetch a blanket for you and I’ll tear up some old sheets for bandages. Wait here.”
He grasped her hand as he gazed at her frantically.
“No. They’re already coming for me.”
“Who is? Jacob?”
He shook his head.
“Who is?” she pleaded.
He closed his eyes and winced.
“You don’t want to know. Please go to your room, Sally.”
She stared down at the man who was both her mentor and her friend. She shook her head, unwilling to believe that there was any merit to what he was saying.
“You are in shock,” she said gently. “I’m fetching those blankets now.”
The sound of hoof beats interrupted her sentence. She went to close the door when she saw Papa, the four other deacons, and Jeremiah ride up to the house and dismount their horses. She looked over her shoulder at the young pastor.
“What happened, Pastor Davis? Who shot you?”
He forced a smile, but his fear-widened eyes drove a chill down her spine.
“You have a strong spirit, Sally,” he said gently. “Don’t let them destroy you.”
She choked back a sob. She had no idea what he meant.
“I don’t understand what is happening, Michael. Please tell me.”
“I beg you. Sally. Go to your room! Do it for me. You can’t see this.”
She went to him and took his hand.
“See what? It will be all right. God is with you,” she whispered.
Tears streamed down his face as he squeezed her hand.
“He is. Now go, Sally.”
She blinked back tears and ran past him to retreat to her room. As she went to close the door, the sight of Papa and the other deacons storming into the kitchen to surround him made her wonder if she was in some sort of night terror.
“I warned you not to cross me, young Michael,” said Deacon Scottson.
“Why did you help him get away?” demanded Papa.
Sally drew back as her father’s angry voice shook the walls..
“My calling is to heal the broken hearted and help lead souls to Christ,” said the pastor. “Jacob is no exception. He needed my help.”
“Do you know what he threatened to do?” yelled Papa.
Sally blinked several times in vain to awaken from the nightmare. She backed into her room and slowly closed the door. The men’s shouts filled the house. She hugged her torso and looked out the window at the hopeless grey sky. As her vision focused, she noticed Jeremiah standing outside beneath the willow tree with the horses. He stared back at her with a look that made her want to weep. He was just as perplexed as she was, but he gone along with everything.
A sharp howl of pain assaulted her eardrums. She ran into the kitchen where the men still surrounded Pastor Davis.
“Stop, Papa!” she cried.
Silence filled the room as her gaze travelled from her expressionless father down to her lifeless pastor. His face was too still. The room was too quiet.
“He’s not dead,” said Sally. “We have to help him.”
She dropped to her knees and touched his clammy forehead. At the sight of the gaping wound on his neck, she wailed. One of them slit his throat.
“He betrayed us,” said Papa. “We had to do the right thing.”
Sally shook her head as she stared up at the man who raised her and realized then that she was looking into the eyes of a stranger.
“No. He wouldn’t betray anyone. Papa, why is he dead?”
“He tried to kill me.”
“Take her away,” said Deacon Scottson. “She can’t say anything to anyone, Dean.”
Papa grabbed her upper arms and shook her.
“Listen to me, Sally! What happened tonight cannot be mentioned ever again. We need to pretend it never happened. Do you understand?”
She tried to speak, but couldn’t form the words.
The other deacons lifted Pastor Davis’s body off the floor and carried him outside. She frantically found her footing.
“Maybe he is still alive!” she cried. “God wouldn’t let him die. We need to check to see if he is still alive.”
Papa shook his head. She started to go after them, but a strong hand caught her arm. She looked up into Jeremiah’s dark eyes.
“We need to go back inside,” he said.
“Why didn’t you stop them? You stood by and watched them do it!”
“Shut your mouth, you mindless little girl!” he snapped.
She tried in vain to pull away from him as the deacons tossed the pastor’s body over a saddle. As he pulled her toward the house, her guts twisted as reality hit her in full force. She dropped to the grass and emptied the contents of her stomach. He let her go until her heaving stopped.
She crawled away from the mess and wept.
“We need to go inside, Sally.”
She rose, pushed Jeremiah out of the way, and went into the house. He joined her inside and closed the door behind him. She met his dark eyes and swallowed past the painful lump in her throat as she threw her hands up in the air.
“We are in hell, Jeremiah. My father… all of the deacons are murderers. Our pastor is gone. Just like that.”
Jeremiah crossed his arms.
“I tried to stop them. They wouldn’t listen to me, Sally. I couldn’t stop them.”
“Please wake me up from this,” she begged.
He shook his head. “I need to be alone.”
“Alone? You are going to leave me after we just watched one of our friends get murdered by Papa and our church’s deacons? Jeremiah, I don’t know who anyone is anymore. I am so scared.”
“So am I.”
Anger that she had never known rattled her to the core. She balled her fists and walked up to him. He gave her a forlorn look. They had never been anything more than two strangers living in the same house. Her heart felt as though it had been torn into a million pieces and there was nothing she could do to reverse the damage that had been done. Hitting Jeremiah would not bring Pastor Davis back.
He turned his back on her and walked down the hallway to his room.
“Jeremiah, look at me. Our pastor is dead. The very Michael Davis from Nashville who left his family behind to teach us all about God! He is now dead. I want to know why the hell they killed him!”
He spun around to face her. She cowered as he stepped toward her.
“How do you think I feel? I was there for the entire thing and I couldn’t stop them!”
He left her there in the hallway and closed his bedroom door. She stood in the darkness for nearly half an hour before making her way back to her room. All she could see when she closed her eyes was the horror that had taken place before her eyes. She thought back to every kind gesture that Pastor Davis had extended to her over the last five years. His smile, his kindness, and his dreams were gone forever. Papa had been a part of putting out his light and she had no idea how to handle it.
She lay on her bed and hugged her knees. Hell encircled her and slowly seeped into her soul, crushing her. His kind smile appeared in her mind’s eye like a photograph. She buried her face into her pillow and screamed.
It was pitch black and windy outside by the time Jeremiah reached the Thompsons’ home. A bolt of lightning lit up the stately house and gave it a ghostlike appearance. The roaring thunder made him recall the dark stranger’s deep voice. Their interaction played in his memory over and over until Mr. Thompson answered his knocks on the door.
At the sight of him, the deacon frowned.
“Forgive me for the intrusion, Sir, but someone you know came to my farm an hour ago.”
“Well, come in out of the rain, boy. Who are you talking about?”
Once he was inside of the house, Jeremiah took a deep breath.
“A man named Jacob paid me a visit about an hour ago.”
Mr. Thompson squinted.
“He said that he used to be a slave of yours. He was looking for you.”
The way that he emphasized the word ‘coloured’ drove a chill down Jeremiah’s spine. He had never heard the man utter anything with so much hatred until that moment.
“Yes. Coloured Jacob. He asked me where he could find you.”
The deacon clenched his jaw.
“I thought he was dead, but it doesn’t surprise me that he cheated death.”
“Sir, what is going on?”
Mr. Thompson shook his head.
“What did you tell him when he asked about me?”
“I gave him the wrong directions to buy us some time.”
The deacon smirked, which was another thing that Jeremiah had never seen him do. He almost wondered if he was dreaming, but that long walk through the storm was proof enough that he was awake.
“You’re going to have to come with me while I gather some of the men together.”
“To talk about what is going on?”
“No. Not talk.”
The deacon’s mouth was set in a grim line, but his bright blue eyes twinkled with the slightest hint of delight.
“We are going to hunt Jacob down and finish what should have been done decades ago.”
Jeremiah took a step back and stared at his wife’s father. Mr. Thompson was the quietest, most solemn deacon at the church; his outlandish behavior was eerie. If he didn’t know any better, he would have said that the man was possessed.
“Forgive me, Sir. I must have misheard you.”
“You did not. Jacob can’t leave this town alive.”
“You want to kill him?”
“Keep up, will you? Of course we have to kill him. Please tell me that Sally is safe inside.”
“She is at home with the door locked. I left the horse in the barn so that she wouldn’t be stranded, but I am sure that the man meant us no harm to begin with.”
“I can’t believe that bastard came to your farm.”
Jeremiah watched in shock as the older man fetched his coat and rifle.
“Stop gawking and follow me, boy.”
“How are we going to find him in this? It’s pitch black out there right now.”
“I have an idea of where he might be.”
“Why does he need to die? He did no harm to Sally and I.”
Mr. Thompson stopped in his tracks before opening the door.
“He is going to kill me if we don’t find him first.”
The door opened and the cool wind hit Jeremiah’s damp clothes. He shuddered and followed the deacon outside to the stables.
“Where are you going?” cried Mrs. Thompson from the front entrance.
By the looks of her loose, disheveled hair, she had been sleeping until she heard them. Jeremiah wondered if she knew the real Mr. Thompson.
“Please lock the door and stay inside, dear!” called Mr. Thompson.
The look that she gave her husband was that of unmasked contempt. Jeremiah swallowed hard and looked away. He had known the family for decades only to realize that he did not know them at all. He wondered what other secrets loomed over the people of the town.
They made their way into the barn and saddled up two horses.
“If you see him, shoot him,” said Mr. Thompson.
Hail pounded on the roof as the wind howled outside.
“Sir, we can’t ride out in this. There could be another tornado.”
“We have to kill him!” shouted Mr. Thompson.
As they rode out into the raging storm, all that ran through Jeremiah’s mind was that they could be riding right into a tornado’s path. As much as he wanted to ride away from the madman and find cover from the tempest, he could not allow him to ride alone.
They traveled a ways down the muddy road until Mr. Thompson’s horse veered off of it. As Jeremiah’s eyesight adjusted to the darkness, he could see that they were riding in the direction of the pastor’s home. He scanned the rainy distance and saw no sign of imminent doom just yet. They passed through a patch of woods and then the light from the pastor’s modest home guided them.
Jeremiah’s stomach knotted. The deacon must have assumed that the pastor would be hiding Jacob. His original perception of the peaceful little town filled with good church people washed away with the heavy rains.
At the sound of hail crashing into the windows, Sally ran past the waning candlelight to retreat to her room. She longed for the soft comfort of blankets, but instead crawled under her bed for cover. With the terrible sound of the violent storm surrounding the house and the thoughts of the stranger coming back for her, it felt like hell itself was surrounding her.
She closed her eyes, wept, and prayed for the storm to stop. The wind’s ferocity only intensified. The walls creaked and the windows rattled, teasing her with more fear. She imagined a tornado ripping up the earth and racing toward her. She would die alone; she would die before making amends with Mama.
Sally screamed along with the thunder as another plead to God to make it stop. When her vocal chords went raw, she lay panting on the hard floor waiting for death to take her. She imagined the tornado sucking her bed away first.
A repetitive, dull thud sounded above the thunder and wind. Her heart raced as she wondered what in the world it could be. Then it occurred to her that someone had to be knocking on the door. She covered her ears with trembling hands. Whomever it was, she could not let them in. Every time she let someone in, her world changed for the worst. They should have had the sense to go to the barn.
She longed to escape from the present, but her alternate reality was so difficult to reach since marrying Jeremiah. It seemed as though the tornado from last year had stolen her secret world away. Perhaps hell itself sent it.
“Please let me return,” she whispered. “Please.”
The only answer to her plea was the repetitive knocking.
One Year Later
Sally jumped down from the thick tree branch at the sight of her mother, who was dressed in all black, walking toward the house. She gripped her novel with both hands and stared up at the clouds. They filled the sky with a familiar, horrific amber colour. It made her think of tornadoes and forced marriages.
Sally straightened out her skirts and made her way to the edge of the property.
“Good afternoon, Mama!” she called.
Her weirdly cheerful tone betrayed the Gothic atmosphere.
“Hello, Sally,” said Mama coolly. “I brought you and Jeremiah some fruit.”
Sally took her mama’s basket and gritted her teeth.
“I haven’t seen you in months,” said Sally.
“Don’t be melodramatic. I see you every Sunday.”
Mama raised her chin. Her porcelain complexion seemed as white as bones next to her high ebony collar. She was still beautiful in comparison to any woman, but she always tried to subdue it. Sally wished that she had inherited more of her mother’s features. She wouldn’t have hid any of them.
“But we haven’t visited in a long time.”
“I am here now. Would you please see me into the house?”
“Yes, of course. Sorry, Mama.”
“Where is your husband?”
It had been one year since Sally married Jeremiah, but the word “husband” still sounded strange to her.
“As you know, he came back from the cattle drive with Gabriel two weeks ago and things are back to normal here.”
Sally’s stomach ached as she recalled those two lonely months with no visitors while Jeremiah went on his adventure.
“Normal?” asked Mama with a raised eyebrow.
Sally bit her lip to stifle a smirk. Mama could be cheeky when she wanted to be. There was nothing normal about her marriage with Jeremiah, but it did no good to state the obvious. She let her mother into the house, poured two glasses of water and prepared a small tray of cheese and crackers. Sitting down at the table across from her mother, she could not help but feel homesick. Just over a year ago, all she had to worry about was passing tests at school or giving Sarah and Lisa the latest piece of gossip. The life of a married woman felt so empty and boring.
“I miss you and Papa. And Amber.”
“We miss you, too, of course,” said Mama, staring at her plate of food. “Sally, my dear, there has been talk that you and Jeremiah are not close.”
A warm flush kissed Sally’s cheeks as she cringed inwardly.
“Who said that?”
“I heard some of the ladies talking after church last week. It has been a year and I don’t recall you mentioning a new baby.”
Sally’s mouth dropped open.
“Mama, are you seriously talking to me about this?”
“Your reputation reflects your Papa’s reputation at the church. I know you are still young, but if this goes on for another year, people might assume the worst about you.”
Sally took a long drink of water to swallow down some of her anger.
Mama stared at her.
Sally rested her elbows on the table and stared back at her mother.
“Do not pretend that you have no idea why Jeremiah and I aren’t close. Papa forced us to be together after seeking refuge from a tornado.”
Mama blinked twice.
“Nobody forced you to do anything.”
Sally balled her fists.
“Oh I remember quite differently. This marriage has taken me away from my friends and my happiness. Jeremiah probably feels the same way.”
“Then you need to change his mind. Fast.”
“This conversation is over. I’ll be happy to talk to you about anything else.”
“This was the reason for my visit.”
Sally rolled her eyes.
“Of course it was.”
Mama crossed her arms and glared.
“Watch your tone, young lady.”
Sally looked around the neat and tidy kitchen and felt emptier than she normally did. Nobody really cared about how she felt. She was just a pawn in everyone else’s lives. The reality hurt a lot because she spent her entire life believing otherwise.
“I just hoped we would be able to have a real visit.”
“I am sure you have dinner to make for Jeremiah. I hope you both enjoy the apples that I brought. They are perfect for pie filling. You might want to make it for a special occasion… if you know what I mean.”
Sally’s breath caught in her throat at the sight of Mama’s conniving gaze.
“I’ll give it a try,” she lied.
She watched her mother step regally out of the house, down the stone path through the rose garden, and back to the road. Shaking her head, she made a mental note to save the apples for Jeremiah’s horse.
“Apple pie indeed,” she huffed.
She started to cut up some vegetables to cook up for the evening meal. The front door suddenly swung open and hit the wall. Sally peered over her shoulder to greet Jeremiah when he came in. The breeze filled the kitchen with the fresh scent of rain, but she saw no sign of him. Frowning, she started toward the door.
A tall stranger stood in the doorway instead.
He said nothing as he lowered the bandanna below his chin. It was one of the few times in her life that she had seen a coloured person. Her town used to thrive on the backs of slaves and his jet black stare demonstrated his distaste for her kind.
“Who are you, Sir?” she asked.
There was something vaguely familiar about him, but she could not quite put her finger on it. Negros rarely came around the town. Papa said that all of the slaves left to make their own life after the war ended seventeen years ago.
“You’re a child,” he said.
“You are already married?” he asked.
“Yes. My husband is working out back.”
“I have the wrong house. Sorry, Ma’am.”
She watched the dark stranger walk toward the barn where Jeremiah was working.
“Wait!” she called. “Where are you going?”
He ignored her and picked up his pace. She followed, but kept her distance. Reason told her that there was nothing she could do if he turned on either of them, but she was not going to sit inside like an imbecile. There were already too many of those in her town.
Her stomach knotted as he walked into the barn. She listened by the barn window, but the voices of her husband and the stranger were too muffled to hear above her pounding eardrums. At the very least, they sounded like they were being civil toward one another. The man was probably just looking for directions. It had to be that.
Taking a deep breath, she started back for the house.
“Sally?” called Jeremiah.
She stopped in her tracks and peered over her shoulder. He had his shotgun with him. Something was wrong.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked.
“I wanted to see what that man was up to. What did he ask you?”
Jeremiah joined her and she did not shy away from his sharp gaze. She was tired of him trying to intimidate her that way.
“You should have stayed inside.”
“Why? Who is he?”
He frowned at her and looked away.
“Please, tell me.”
“Go inside and lock the door. I am going to see your Papa.”
“Please do as I ask, Sally.”
She had never seen him look so serious and that was saying something. He waited for her to lock the door and then he started to jog down the road. A terrible sense of dread rushed through her. She hugged herself and begged God to keep her family safe.
“Something is very wrong,” she whispered as she stared out the window.
A bolt of lightning zig-zagged across the grey sky. A loud crash of thunder followed and rattled the house. She placed her hands over her ears and cowered in the corner, praying for it all to stop.
A soft knock sounded on Sally’s door and she groaned.
“Please leave me alone.”
The door creaked open.
Sally wiped her tears and rolled over to face her little sister. She forced a smile at the wide-eyed sprite who appeared completely confused.
“Hi, Amber,” said Sally softly.
“Why are you getting married right now?”
Sally sat up and looked at her disheveled hair and red eyes in the mirror across the room.
“Because Papa thinks it’s for the best. I should get dressed soon. Everyone is waiting. Did they send you up here?”
Amber shook her head.
“I knew you were sad. Will you be gone forever?”
The thought of leaving home forever as a married woman scared every inch of Sally’s being, but she had no more strength to cry.
“I’m afraid so.”
Sally’s two best friends came in then. At the sight of their concerned looks, her initial numbness melted away. She covered her mouth as everything in the room swam.
“It’s all right,” said Sarah. “We are here for you.”
“Jeremiah is a good man. He will take good care of you and you’ll have a beautiful view of the river,” cooed Lisa.
“It’s not that I don’t like Jeremiah. I just don’t know anything about-”
Sally sunk to the floor next to her bed and Amber cried along with her. Lisa and Sarah sat down on the plush carpeting next to Sally until she was able to find her composure.
“I think that every girl feels the same way that you do on her wedding day,” said Sarah. “It will just take some getting used to.”
Sally stretched her arms out to gather Amber into a warm embrace.
“Always sisters,” she whispered. “Please visit me on his farm.”
“Always sisters,” whispered Amber.
Amber rushed out of the room, leaving the three teen-aged girls alone with the thick silence. Sally’s mind wandered to a boy she once knew who had the most beautiful eyes. Gabriel. He was Jeremiah’s best friend. He lived in a town that was a weeks’ journey away, but a part of her always hoped he would return for her when she was old enough to court. Her deepest hopes faded away into nothing.
“I think I still love Gabriel,” sighed Sally.
Lisa gasped. Sarah bit her lip and looked away.
“I know it isn’t proper to speak of it right now, but this morning I did not have the slightest clue that I’d be marrying his best friend of all people. This just isn’t fair.”
“Oh Sally, life will never be fair to anyone,” said Sarah. “You are going to have to bury your feelings for Gabriel or they will eat you alive.”
Sally groaned and buried her face in her hands.
“We need to make you look beautiful,” said Lisa, standing up and pulling out Sally’s finest dress from the wardrobe.
It was a pale blue frock with white lace trim. Sally had only worn it once on what had been one of the most fun evenings of her life. Over a year ago when Gabriel was still in town, she wore the dress to the annual summer carnival. Those were simpler days when she was still just an innocent girl with silly dreams.
“The wedding is in an hour,” said Sarah.
“Oh my God,” breathed Sally.
“Life has a way of waking us up rather harshly,” said Sarah with an empathetic smile.
“Your maid has prepared a bath for you,” said Lisa. “Come on, get up now.”
“Great,” muttered Sally. “Maybe I can drown my sorrows.”
“It will be okay. You’ll see,” said Lisa airily. “I find this all so exciting and romantic. Yesterday we were playing games with the other school children and tonight you will be a married lady! You are the first one of us to grow up, you know. I’m a little jealous.”
Sally could only stare at her dim wit for a friend. It did no one any good to paint over the terrible situation and try to make it seem like some sort of work of art.
After Sally returned from her bath, she felt no less disturbed.
“Sit here, Sally,” said Sarah, “I’ll brush out your hair.”
Unable to look at her own reflection, Sally stared down at her hands resting on her lap as Sarah styled her hair. She longed to escape into her special world, but the reality was too heavy to escape from. Her friends helped her get dressed and they made a few final finishing touches. Both of them looked at her with glistening eyes and it was then that Sally knew the truth of how they both felt. They were just as sorry to see her get married as she was, but they would never dare to say so. It was simply the way of things.
“You look so beautiful,” said Sarah.
Sally blushed and stared at the floor.
“I’m going to run home and ask Papa if I can take a picture of you and Jeremiah so that you can remember your special day,” gushed Lisa.
Sally was about to tell her not to bother, but the daft girl already ran out the door.
“She won’t be long,” said Sarah. “I will pick you a nice little bouquet of flowers from the garden and then it will be time. Perhaps you can take some time to enjoy your final moments of freedom.”
“Thank you,” said Sally.
Her final moments of girlhood passed away far too quickly. First Sarah returned with six pink roses and then Lisa returned with her father and his camera equipment in tow. It felt as though her heart had collapsed into her stomach and it hurt to breathe.
The sound of Mama’s piano playing filled the house. Sarah gently squeezed Sally’s hand before taking her place behind Lisa. Each of them held a solitary rose. They slowly descended the staircase and it felt as though the world had shifted into a new, depressing reality.
Sally closed her eyes and followed her friends down the steps and into the heavily perfumed room. Mama looked over at her from her place at the piano; her mouth curved upward into a delighted smile that did not quite reach her blue eyes. Her father stoically approached her, took her arm, and led her to the end of the dining room where the pastor and Jeremiah stood. At the sight of the young farmer staring at her with the same horrified expression that she must have worn, her heart nearly stopped.
She blinked back tears, telling herself not to cry in front of everyone. She would have the rest of her life to cry.
She met the gaze of Pastor Davis. His gentle warm brown eyes settled some of her nerves. In that moment, she was very grateful to have him as the shepherd of her church. He would always be there for her even when her parents weren’t.
Papa let her go and Jeremiah took her hand. It was warm and firm. She stared into his eyes for comfort, but she found none. He looked away from her with unmasked annoyance.
The moment passed by in a blur as Sally repeated her vows after her pastor and became Mrs. Jeremiah Smith.
It was dark by the time they reached the farm. His property remained relatively untouched by the tornado. The next day, he would work from sunrise to sunset tending to the cattle and building a new pen for all of the upcoming newborns. It was a wonder that the terrible storm hadn’t caused some of the cows to give premature births.
Beneath the inky sky flecked with twinkling stars, the farmyard looked eerily peaceful. Sally shifted next to him and he inhaled a hopeless breath of the fresh night air.
“Well, here we are,” said Jeremiah.
“Yes. My parents got what they wanted,” muttered Sally. “You have a lovely farm, by the way.”
“I am glad you like it. It is yours, too.”
“Jeremiah, I know nothing about…”
“Don’t worry yourself. I have a guest room for you.”
“Oh… well, I will go unpack my bag now.”
The relief in her voice eased a bit of his tension. He had been correct to assume that she needed her own room. She left him alone beneath the starry skies and he watched her retreat. With a tiny build and a spritely gait, she appeared far too young to be anyone’s wife. He would probably be able to get away with going on the cattle drive with his friend Gabriel in the fall. She was in no position to tell him what to do.
With a satisfied smirk, he turned in for the night.
After her mother broke the news to everyone within earshot, Sally cried out and flew out of the church like a wounded animal. Her skirts trailed behind her as she ran. The reality had crashed in on both of them. He hardly knew her and had no idea how he was going to juggle keeping a farm along with a child bride.
“Go after her,” said Mrs. Thompson.
His irritation intensified at the sound of the woman’s voice. It possessed the quality of a weak person who thought that she had power. He swallowed down the words he longed to say.
“We should let her be,” said Jeremiah. “I need to check on my cattle.”
He started to walk out of the church. The outside air caressed his dewy skin and he longed to run away, too.
“We will have the wedding tonight, Jeremy,” boomed Mr. Thompson.
He stopped in his tracks. Without looking back, he inhaled an angry breath.
“You couldn’t give either of us a final night before we are bound together forever?”
Heavy footsteps shook the floor as the older man reached Jeremiah’s side. Jeremiah clenched his fists. He had never wanted to punch someone so badly in all of his life. He was twenty-one with his whole life of him. He didn’t think he would consider marriage until he was old. His dreams of selling the farm in a few years to travel the were destroyed with the ferocity of a twister.
“Any man would consider himself lucky to wed my beautiful daughter. I will see you at my house at six o’clock this evening. Is that understood?”
Beautiful was not the word that Jeremiah would have used to describe her. She was cute, of course, but in a childish way. Not that any girl turned his head to begin with. He had better things to think about than romance and marriage.
“Yes, Sir. I will see you at six o’clock for the wedding.”
As Jeremiah left the church, he entertained wild ideas that would help him escape the ridiculous arrangement. He broke into a run for his farm. His eardrums throbbed even after he stopped in front of his home.
His entire property was spared from the tornado. If it had, an undesirable marriage would have been the least of his worries. His livelihood rested on breeding and selling his cattle to the butchers to get him through the winter. He took a deep breath and stared up at the blue skies. It almost seemed illogical that a storm had raged through the countryside mere hours ago.
Sally held her knees beneath the tall willow tree. She took turns weeping and staring up at the pretty pink skies until the sun went down. In the distance, she heard family and friends calling for her, but her loud thoughts drowned them all out.
Crickets and toads chirped all around her after the sun set, reminding her that it was time to go home. She arose to her feet in the darkness, lifted her skirts, and ran for home.
She reached the front door and hesitated before opening it. She grabbed the door knob; the sound of Jeremiah’s deep voice vibrated the door knob. Once she went inside, her entire world would change forever. She took a final moment to savour the girl she currently was. With a deep sigh, she opened the door and met the faces of every person who meant the world to her. The pastor leaned against the wall, her parents sat at the table with her little sister, and her best friends, Lisa and Sarah, prepared tea and sandwiches. She must have looked a sight to them.
“Forgive me,” said Sally quietly. “It’s been a very strange day.”
“We were worried sick,” began her mother.
Her father held up a hand to silence her.
Sally’s gaze travelled to Jeremiah. He sat at the other end of the table with a less than pleased expression on his face. She longed for someone to tell her that the entire day had been a feverish dream and that she had just woken up, but instead the silence thickened.
Jeremiah stood and knelt down in the middle of the kitchen. With dark wavy hair, chocolate eyes, and a square jaw, he was a handsome enough man, but she knew nothing about men. She tensed as he looked into her eyes.
“Sally Thompson, will you marry me?”
Sally swallowed hard, looking over at her Mama for guidance. Mama nodded for her to accept.
“Yes,” whispered Sally.
Everyone in the room clapped their hands except for her Papa. He had no doubt been the cause of the whole arrangement. Sally bit her lip and raced upstairs. When she was finally in the safety of her own bed, she curled up into the fetal position and wept.