Jeremy sat on the fence watching the setting sun bring the clouds aflame with hot pink fire. Fog rose from the creek just past the perimeter of his property and he sighed at the beautiful magic that surrounded him. Just beyond his farmland, the murderers lived and thrived. He couldn’t value land, no matter beloved, over his and Sally’s lives anymore.
Sally sat by the rose bushes painting the clouds. She looked so beautiful when she painted. She loved her art as much as he loved his farm. Guilt stung him as he thought of Michael again. He couldn’t let himself forget.
He jumped off the fence and strode toward Sally as she put her water colours away. She saw him approach her and stopped to smile up at him. Despite the hell that loomed just beyond their haven, he felt happy with her. She was still so young and hopeful. They didn’t have children weighing them down. They were young and free and could start up a new farm anywhere they chose to.
“I really need to take you away from here,” he said. “Soon.”
She tilted her head as her eyes widened in surprise.
“You said that you can’t leave the farm.”
“I know I said it, but Sally, I can’t make you stay here. The conversation with your father was as clear as day that he’s watching me. He wouldn’t hesitate to kill anyone who crossed him. We can’t stay in a place that killed our friend. I realize that now… finally.”
She stood up, keeping his gaze.
“What about Gabriel?”
“He’ll understand. Once we are far from here, I will write to him and tell him the truth. I can’t risk your safety by telling him while we are still here. God only knows what he will believe and what he would do with the information.”
“He was pretty hot headed the last time he stayed here,” said Sally.
“He was. He also looks up to Pastor Scottson already.”
“When will we leave?”
“At the end of the week. The deacons will all be at the church having their monthly meeting with the pastor. We will leave in the middle of the night.”
Sally gasped and wrapped her arms around him.
“Oh, Gabriel. Thank you! I cannot wait to start over and put this place behind us. I will write to Mama once we are settled and perhaps we can save her from this place, too.”
“One thing at a time, my dear. First we have to get out of here unharmed.”
Her eyes widened.
“We will have to leave in the middle of the night.”
“Don’t worry yourself. We just have to be very careful.”
She buried her face in his chest and he played with her silky hair.
“Every time we sit in that church, I feel ill,” he said quietly. “Michael would still be preaching there. I couldn’t save him then, but we will respect him by leaving this place behind and starting new.”
“And we’ll teach our children what he taught us,” added Sally.
Her tears soaked through his shirt and he held her tighter.
“I’m so proud of you for finding out more about Jacob,” she said.
“I did it all for Michael… and for you.”
She took his hand and squeezed it.
“I wonder where Jacob went.”
“We may never know, but I hope he doesn’t waste the life that Michael died for.”
Her little body shuddered against his. He gathered her into his arms and carried her back to the house.
“My painting!” she cried.
“It won’t rain tonight. It will be fine.”
He kissed her and she sighed, melting into him. Inside, they tore each other’s clothes off and ran to their room.
The next morning, they awoke entangled in one another. They rose and made breakfast together; he smiled at her tousled hair as she tried in vain to straighten it out with her fingers. She mesmerized him; he couldn’t believe how dim he had been the previous year to not see how amazing she really was. As they sipped coffee and ate pancakes dripping with maple syrup, they talked about their funniest childhood memories to pass the morning.
“I really thought I might be a famous painter one day,” said Sally whimsically, tilting her head.
“You still could be one day. Your paintings are beautiful. I can help you try to find a place to display them after we settle in at the new farm.”
Her eyes lit up.
“Would you really?”
He nodded, smiling.
“I love learning about you. What makes you happy and what makes you cringe and everything in between.”
She bit her lip and leaned forward.
“I like learning more about you, too. There’s more to you than just the cows, after all.”
“Cattle,” he corrected, meeting her lips and kissing her.
It was painful leaving her to go work on the farm and it broke his heart to think that all of his hard work would for naught when he would leave most of it behind.
At the end of the day, Gabriel stopped by.
“Want to go fishing?” he asked.
Jeremy nearly said no at the thought of leaving Sally alone all evening, but it had been ages since he had seen Gabriel.
“Let’s go,” said Jeremy.
He grabbed his fishing rod and they went to a nearby pond to see if they could catch some catfish.They talked mostly about their beautiful wives, but it was clear that Gabriel was completely in love with Mary. They had married for love after experiencing an epic adventure across the state together. His idealism was louder than the chirping birds above them as he spoke of his dreams for the town and for Mary. He was only twenty, married, and studying to be a preacher. Hearing him speak so highly of the devil disguised as a pastor made Jeremy’s skin crawl. He felt terrible for leaving Gabriel to the mercy of snakes, but he would be safe since he listened to every word that they spoke. Surely he would believe him when he wrote to him. He hoped that he would take Mary and move closer to him.
When they caught two fat catfish each, they starting packing up for the day. They turned at the sound of someone coming. It was Mary. She greeted them with a smile. Gabriel ran to her and they kissed unabashedly.
“I felt like exploring before sunset and I just so happened to find you two here,” she said with a light laugh.
“Would you both like to come back to my house with me and all four of us could have a nice talk?”
Gabriel and Mary agreed. They walked just ahead of Jeremy, holding hands and talking like they were still courting. As they reached the farmhouse, Sally saw their approach and ran out to greet them.
“Hi, Sally!” called Mary.
“What a surprise!” Sally called back.
She came to Jeremy’s side and he took her hand. She leaned against him, but there was something different about her. She seemed agitated.
As they congregated at the table inside, Sally served them all tea, biscuits, and sliced apples. She sat down and eyed Mary.
“I wasn’t aware that I was being excluded from a group outing,” she said in an overly bright tone.
“Oh, it wasn’t a group thing at all,” said Mary. “I was just going on my own walk and I happened to bump into them.”
“No doubt,” smirked Sally.
Jeremy flinched at the way that Sally looked at Mary up and down in unmasked jealousy.
“It was only Gabriel and I who went. Mary came just as we were leaving,” said Jeremy quickly.
Sally’s piercing green eyes met his for a moment before she concentrated on her food.
The rest of the night was a little tense as the two girls sat quietly while Jeremy and Gabriel drew out a conversation about farming. It was clear that Sally and Mary were not going to be fast friends.
When Gabriel and Mary left for the evening, Jeremy locked the door and studied Sally as she cleaned up the kitchen.
“What is wrong?” he asked.
“I saw how you looked at her and how she would giggle every time you said something remotely amusing. The rumours about her enjoying the company of men are clearly not just rumours.”
“Sally, you were imagining things. Gabriel’s wife is a kind, lovely woman, but she loves him. Don’t you see how they talk and stare at one another? I’m nothing to her.”
“When was the last time that you called me ‘lovely’? Oh, now I remember. You haven’t.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“She was an old maid, you know. She’s twenty-four! Lord knows how many men she’s been with.”
“Sally, this isn’t like you. What’s wrong?”
The tears in her eyes made his stomach churn. Perhaps he did admire Mary’s ethereal beauty a couple of times, but he didn’t care about her. He thought it had been made more than obvious to Sally how much he desired her as his wife.
“I knew you didn’t think that I was as pretty as her! I can’t wait to leave this stupid town!”
All he could do was stare at her.
“I think you are beautiful.”
Her jaw dropped as more tears streamed down her face.
“Now you tell me! This is what it took for you to call me beautiful?”
She ran into her room and slammed the door behind her.
“Sally, please come out and talk!” he called.
“Go away and dream about the tiny-waisted, flaxen haired Mary!”
Jeremy stood in the wake of Sally’s perplexing storm and stared at her door. The bratty little girl had returned and it took every fabric of his being to not despise her for turning on him after they had come so far together. If she wanted to be left alone, he would leave her alone. He didn’t have time for childish games with a girl that had no thought for anyone else. Perhaps Gabriel had been wise to marry a lady a little older than he was. It wasn’t uncommon.
Jeremy walked back to his empty room.
She ignored him all day. He tried talking to her when she first came out of her room in the morning, but she ran outside until all that she could see was the river. She did not come home until well after noon, forcing him to make his own lunch. She knew that she was being harsh to the man who worked his hind off for both of them to have a good life, but seeing him look at another woman the way that he did made the hell return.
Gabriel had forgotten about her completely; that was fine. He didn’t look Sally’s way once in the entire three hours that he visited aside from exchanging the usual pleasantries. She had never been anything to him. Jeremy only found her beautiful because he had to.
She stood in the middle of the kitchen closing her eyes. Just when she thought that she was beginning to fall for Jeremy, he betrayed her. Mary was a stunning woman. In fact, she looked more like some sort of goddess more than a woman. With long, graceful limbs, perfect golden hair, and the tiniest waist, it was no wonder that she turned men’s heads. Sally balled her fists and was suddenly glad that she hadn’t eaten all day. Her waist was small, but nothing like that. She felt like a stumpy troll next to an angel whenever Mary was close by.
The door opened and closed and she could hear Jeremy’s breathing.
“Hi,” he said.
“Did you have a good night dreaming of her?”
“All that I’ve thought about is you, Sally. Please, talk to me.”
“You didn’t even want to be with me. My parents forced us to be together. You have to tell me I’m beautiful. If you were still single, you wouldn’t be courting me right now.”
“Sally, I am so very attracted to you. I thought that I showed you that multiple times now.”
Sally shook her head. She longed to believe it, but she knew it was false. There was nothing exquisite about her hair, face, or proportions. She was ordinary.
“I just felt that you were too young for marriage at first and I didn’t want to look at you like a woman in the beginning. I didn’t even bother with girls before you. You know that. I always kept to myself and my farming.”
“I saw your eyes light up every time Mary said something. I still feel ill at the memory of it. My hands.. they have been shaking ever since. I’m never enough. I will never be enough.”
He came closer, but he didn’t touch her.
“Oh, Sally. Please tell me what to do to make you feel better. I want you to be happy.”
“The thing that would make the happiest would be impossible now.”
She prepared a simple dinner without any intention of eating it while Jeremy washed up. Once they sat down at the table, she speared a carrot with her fork and nibbled on it, wandering away to another place, a memory that hid inside of her fragile mind.
“Please eat, Sally.”
“Why? So I can always look fatter than Mary?”
Jeremy threw his head back.
“You can’t compare yourself to her. You are beautiful in different ways.”
“In what ways? Like how a Shetland pony is beautiful in comparison to an Arabian? Spare me.”
Jeremy slammed his fist on the table.
“A day ago we were talking about getting out of this town to honour Michael. How can you be focused on something so unimportant?”
Sally shot up and started to go outside. A knock sounded on the door, causing Sally to draw back. The last time someone knocked on her door, a disaster followed. Her heart ached and she leaned against the wall as memories of Michael’s death paralyzed her.
“Are you all right?” asked Jeremy.
He nearly touched her arm, but restrained himself and went to answer the door. The sound of Mary’s voice brought Sally back to reality. There she stood in the doorway with tears streaming down her perfect face as she whined to Jeremy about something. He went to grab his shotgun and then followed her outside.The entire moment was like a bad dream.
Sally said a few things to them, but she was barely aware of them. She heard fragmented sentences about Gabriel missing and Mary needing help to find him. A long gun was strapped to her back and she looked like a beautiful cowgirl from sort of magazine drawing. She had managed to pull off yet another male fantasy.
Trembling, Sally walked out onto the porch and watched Mary mount her horse. Jeremy came out from the barn on his horse and they rode away together like long lost friends.
She stood there alone as her husband, her love, rode away with the object of his desire. She slammed the door and screamed. He had left her alone when she needed him the most. She only wanted him to show her how much he wanted her, how desirable she was, but Mary was still more important than her.
She dragged her feet to her room and stared at her reflection in the mirror. She had been foolish enough to think that she was becoming more beautiful as she grew up. Her long wavy hair looked like mud in comparison to Mary’s hair. She looked frumpy and childish. The skin on her palms tingled. She didn’t know what else to do but do their bidding. So many times before she restrained herself, but her will to stop it vanished. She longed to hurt herself because she was worthless and deserved it.
She yelled and balled her fists. She beat her upper arms repeatedly until she lost her breath. Panting, she sunk to the floor and pulled up her skirt so she could remove her stockings. She punched her bare thighs with all of her might. She screamed in hellish agony as she pulled on her hair, kicking her legs. At the end, she lay on the floor in pain and exhaustion, longing for sleep to take her away.
He wasn’t going to come for her. He wouldn’t save her because he was already with the woman that he longed to save.
Sally forced herself to stand on shaking legs and then she ran full force into the wall, bashing her head into it. She fell backward as the world spun and relief closed in on her.