Sally pushed the door open and nearly fell into the house as she stumbled over the mat. Papa sat at the table with Pastor Scottson. And Gabriel.
Steam rose from the three hot cups of coffee, giving the scene a dreamlike quality.
She tried to catch her breath, but the terrible guilt seemed to clench her lungs.
“Sally, is there something amiss?” asked Papa.
She nodded, barely able to breathe as she stared into Gabriel’s eyes. She was about to ruin his beautiful life for the sake of saving her own pathetic one. The love she thought she once had for him as a young girl had long since vanished, but she never would have imagined she would be the cause of breaking his heart. She did not want to hurt him. He had made it known to the entire congregation how much he longed to be a father to house full of bright young minds. It would never happen with a wife like Mary.
“Sally, are you all right?” asked Gabriel.
“No. Not at all.”
“What are you doing here?” asked Pastor Scottson.
She recalled Mary’s broken demeanor as she slowly made her way to the medicine woman’s cabin, nearly turning back once she reached it. Sally closed her eyes, begging for God to save her from betraying another woman and throwing her to the devils.
“Spit it out!” ordered Papa.
She met his cold gaze and then looked at the pastor. His stare was equally metallic. She decided to fix her gaze on Gabriel’s concerned, but kind demeanor.
“I am so very sorry to break this to you, but I saw Mary go to the medicine woman’s cabin this afternoon.”
“Why were you following her?”
“I… well, I…”
“Go on,” said Pastor Scottson. “Tell all of us what that rebellious little witch did to her baby.”
A hint of a wicked grin distorted his already hideous face.
Gabriel stood abruptly. Sally cowered against the door.
“She’s lying,” he said.
“My daughter would never accuse anyone of such an atrocity unless she had complete proof,” said Papa.
“With all due respect, Sir, Mary would never hurt our baby!”
“Calm down, my boy,” said Pastor Scottson.
Gabriel sat down, glaring at Papa across the table.
“I couldn’t say for sure, of course,” said Sally. “But that is where she went. I saw her go inside with the medicine woman. That is all I saw.”
“Thank you, Sally,” said Papa, waving her away like someone did with an annoying dog.
Vomiting her treachery out and bathing in a cold mountain spring for hours would never wash her clean. She had become one of them.
Gabriel shook his head, slouching in his seat.
“I can’t believe she would do that.”
Sally clasped her hands together.
“Maybe she didn’t do it.”
He looked at her like the despicable thing that she was, but held his peace. He rose and walked away from the table, brushing past her to open the door.
“Gabriel,” said he pastor. “If you find that she has done what Sally has said, she cannot stay here.”
He leaned against the door with a gut wrenching expression on his face.
“I know. I’ll deal with her accordingly. You have my word.”
He stormed outside. Sally closed the door after him and glanced at her father.
“Are you happy now?” she asked.
He grinned at the pastor.
“I’m getting there. Well done, Sally.”
“I should go. Jeremy will need dinner made.”
“Sally, wait,” called Pastor Scottson.
She stiffened, turning around to face the two wolves again.
“You just saved this entire town by following that tart and discovering her true nature. We couldn’t move forward without you.”
“It was my pleasure, Pastor,” said Sally.
The three of them exchanged devilish grins.
“Good day,” she said over her shoulder.
Once the outside air collided with her clammy skin, she lifted her skirts and sprinted back for home. She imagined the evil spirits surrounding her, scratching at the confines of her soul and breaking through, possessing her. She sunk to her knees when she reached the house. Darkness enclosed itself around her. She was about to hit herself, but then caught sight of Jeremy.
“Sally, what happened?”
He ran up to her.
“I ruined their marriage, Jeremy. I threw Mary to the wolves!”
He crouched down next to her.
“What are you talking about?”
Sally caught her breath somehow and stared into his confused gaze.
“I did what Papa told me and I followed Mary. I saw her go to the medicine woman in the woods we do not go to and I ran to tell Papa. Gabriel and the pastor were both there and heard it all firsthand from me.”
She clutched her aching stomach and lay down on the grass.
“Oh God, I’m the devil,” she breathed.
“Gabriel is going to be so hurt by this.”
“Worse than that. He’s going to have to throw her out of their home. I’ve ruined two lives. They were so happy, Jeremy.”
“Dear God, what are we doing here?”
She stared up at her husband as he shook his head grievously.
“I did it for Mama and Amber… and for you. To keep you safe from them for a little longer. They were happy with me. It buys us some time now.”
“I need to go see him tomorrow.”
He looked so sad. It made her sick.
“Mary will have nowhere to go, Sally. I know Gabriel. He would cast her away for doing away with his baby. He values his principles over everything else, even her.”
“Then he doesn’t really love her,” said Sally, sitting up to hug her knees. “He never did.”
“It’s a shame that you had to be involved in this.”
Her anger heated up and she stood. She wanted to hit something.
“You think I don’t know that?” she cried. “How exactly did you think I was going to win Papa’s trust? I had to do something despicable to one person to save multiple people. It had to be done.”
Jeremy stared up at her.
“So this is who you’ve become.”
She bent down and slapped his face. He never did know who she really was. Who she could have been.
“How dare you?” she shouted. “You were the one who refused to leave because of Gabriel! I wouldn’t be in this mess if it weren’t for you. I wanted to leave months ago for this very reason. They’ll either kill us or use us.”
She ran to the house and slammed the front door behind her. She was done with it all. With her father, with the elders, with Jeremy. She had become one of the monsters and there was no going back.
She stepped out into the fog the next morning as though entering another dream. She breathed in the moisture, longing to be cleansed from the inside out, but nothing physical could ever redeem a possessed spirit. Only God could save her, but she had no idea why he would want to.
A woman’s silhouette appeared through the mists and for a moment, Sally wondered if she were dreaming.
“Oh, what a day for me to come calling. It’s a wonder I found my way here.”
Perhaps God hadn’t turned his back on her yet, for he had sent her the person she loved the most.
“Oh, I am so happy you have come. I’ll make us a pot of tea and we’ll eat all of my oatmeal cookies.”
Mama took Sally’s hand.
“No, not here. Let’s go.”
Mama pulled her along, and they ran for the corn field. Sally laughed in confusion.
“I thought you hated dirt.”
Mama shook her head, beaming. “I only pretended to.”
She wandered further into the field and Sally followed her. The dreamlike setting made her feel like she was in an Emily Bronte novel. For all of the hell she had felt over the past year, the magical scene made her feel alive again.
“We can finally talk out here. No one will find us. At least not for a while.”
“Mama, I ruined Gabriel and Mary’s marriage. I became Papa’s spy and I found Mary doing one of the worst things a woman could do.”
Mama spun around to face her.
“That wasn’t your fault! Papa blackmailed you. Mary made her own decision whether you followed her or not.”
Sally shook her head.
“All the same, I was the reason why Gabriel found out what she did.”
Mama shook her head, staring intently at Sally.
“Mary is a fighter. She never needed Gabriel. Oh Sally, I am grateful to God that you are not like me.”
“What do you mean? You’re an amazing person, Mama. So kind and elegant.”
Mama shook her head as she fought back tears by smiling wider.
“I refused Jacob because deep down, I didn’t think I could handle a life on the run with him. What kind of woman turns her back on a man who loves her?”
“You do love him?”
“I do, but it wasn’t enough.”
Sally brought her lips close to Mama’s ear as though someone might be listening, even within the maze of corn.
“I can help you escape. We can find Jacob together.”
Mama wiped her eyes with the back of her pale hand.
“I’d like that, but I can’t have you risking yourself for me anymore. Your Papa has been consumed by his beliefs and I think he could even hurt little Amber if he caught us both trying to flee.”
Staring at her mother and realizing the years of horror and control that she had been forced to endure made Sally want to do anything necessary to save her from Papa.
“Tell me about Jacob. How you met him. What Papa did. I want to know it all. He’s my friend, too.”
Mama sat down on the dirt. Sally gaped at her. She would have burst out laughing had it not been for the grave topic surrounding them.
“Sit down with me. Dresses can always be washed.”
“Mama, you surprise me.”
Mama stretched, smiling.
“I haven’t sat in the dirt since I was little. It’s freeing to do whatever crosses my mind out here.”
“I am so sorry you’ve had to live with Papa for so long.”
Mama sighed, studying Sally for a long time.
“Jacob was already his slave when he married me. Your Papa said that he bought him at one of those heinous auctions. He chose him because he thought he was strong and stupid like an ox. I was forced to watch one of those auctions once. Little children were dragged away from their parents, frightened thirteen year old girls were being gawked at by old men and everything in between. Slavery was how men like your Papa made so much money in those days.”
Sally’s eyes stung as she imagined thousands upon thousands of people being sold, traded, and separated from their families like cattle.
“Did he hurt them?” asked Sally.
Mama nodded, looking away.
“I hate him so much.”
“So do I,” said Mama.
“I saw him kill Michael. Did he ever tell you how they did it?”
Mama covered her mouth with a trembling hand.
“I watched them do it from the entrance of my bedroom. They surrounded him like a pack of wolves about to rip apart a wounded animal. Papa was the one who shot him.”
“Oh Sally, I should have taken you and Amber away from here years ago.”
“It’s all right, Mama. It wasn’t your fault.”
“I think that I fell for Jacob right away. The first time your Papa hit me, I fled outside to the gardens. Jacob risked his own safety to comfort me. He was so gentle, so attentive. He was being treated like an animal by my husband, but he looked at me like I was the most wonderful being he had ever laid eyes on.”
Sally recalled the look in his eyes when he spoke about her to Inola.
Mama shuddered, staring intently at the memories only she could see.
“I did nothing the entire time he owned those people. I’d sneak out and give them leftovers and blankets, but I was really no better than him. He’d have them whipped, beaten. He forced himself on most of the women whether they pleased him or not. I could have helped them escape, but I was too afraid. I’m not a strong person, Sally.”
“He raped them?”
Mama’s expression grew hard.
“Do I have other siblings somewhere?”
“Sally, he isn’t your father.”
Sally swallowed hard, not understanding the words.
“He isn’t? How could that be?”
Mama smiled through her tears, taking Sally’s hand again.
“Jacob is your father.”
“What?” cried Sally.
In that moment, she recalled Jacbo’s warm eyes, how he lived out in the woods just so he could look in on her. All of those years she had been raised by a human devil and he wasn’t even her father.
“I couldn’t tell you until now,” said Mama. “I hope you understand.”
“It’s all right, Mama,” said Sally softly. “Now I know.”
Sally buried her face in Mama’s shoulder and they held one another.
Jeremy shoveled piles of manure out of the horses’ stalls. He couldn’t shake the misery that surrounded him. It was his fault that Sally had been put in a position to spy for her father and now Gabriel would be heartbroken possibly for the rest of his life. He could have stopped Michael’s murder. He could have prevented a lot of things from happening if he hadn’t been so dim.
He heard soft voices travel into the barn. He stopped working and peered out of the window to see Sally walking arm in arm with her mother. The fog swirled around them like a spell would surround two princesses in a fairy tale.
He set his shovel down and waved to them. They both appeared startled.
“Telling more secrets, I reckon,” he muttered as he left the barn strode up to them.
“Good morning, Mrs. Thompson. Can I get you anything?”
“Hello, Jeremy,” said Mrs. Thompson with a soft smile. ” Thank you, but I must be getting home now. Sally and I just had the most wonderful talk.”
“I am glad to hear it.”
Sally and her mama exchanged glances.
“Take care of yourself, dear. You and Jeremy need to get out of here.”
“We’ll get you out of here and take you with us, but in the meantime, please be careful.”
Mrs. Thompson stared at Jeremy with sad eyes.
“Please get her out of here safely.”
She disappeared through the fog. Sally stared after her with tears streaming down her face. He thought it better not to ask what they had spoken about.
“I need to see Gabriel. Will you be all right here at the house?”
Sally stared up at him, appearing so lost.
“Could I please come with you?”
“It might be better if you don’t go. There is no telling what frame of mind he will be in.”
“Right. Of course.”
“I won’t be long. I just need to make sure he’s all right.”
“Just be careful. He’s one of them.”
“So are we.”
He saddled up his horse and rode through the ethereal, swirling fog. On the other side of it he would hopefully find Gabriel.