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.