I lean back shaking against the dank cellar wall cradling my two-year-old brother against my chest. The dark, the musky scent, the cold drafts blowing around me, it all adds to my anxiety. I can hear footsteps above me as well as the muffled sound of voices, but I can make out nothing coherent. Jeremiah is a good boy. My mother raised him since birth to be quiet when told. I am thankful now that she had done so. Before hand, I would have just as soon allowed him to be loud and talkative, but now, I am pleased that he knows when it is time for silence.
I know why we are down here. Mom and dad are late on their taxes…I guess Cereus sent some Ranks to take care of it. I just hope they can construct some deal instead of the Ranks going about their…usual way of teaching lessons.
The squeak of a rat in the farthest corner from me sends a chill up my back. I always hated those rats. Jeremiah squirms slightly, becoming impatient of the silent darkness, but I hold him tightly and whisper quietly for him not to make a sound. He understands. He knows how dire it is for us to remain undetected.
Moments seem to pass and fade so terribly slowly, feeling more like hours. I can hear my dad's booming voice demand for something. My mom sounds pleading. I wish I knew what was happening, but I suppose they do not think a thirteen-year-old can do much in the way of whatever is going on. Dust falls from overhead off the floorboards as the weight of several bodies enter the house...more than there just were. I resist the urge to sneeze and close my eyes. I can almost feel the tension from above sinking down on Jeremiah and I.
How long have we been down here? Five minutes at least. In any other case, five minutes is nothing, but when siting in a dark stuffy room below a seemingly intense discussion, one minute is an eternity.
It is fast. I know that, and years from now, I will console myself with the idea that my mom and dad did not suffer. Nevertheless, as I sit down in the cellar, holding Jeremiah close, not daring to breathe easily, a gunshot rings, followed by another.
The men leave, whoever shot them, and I wait, sitting quietly. My lower lip trembles but I will not allow myself to cry. Jeremiah is frozen, terrorized by the sound the gunshots made. I shakily stand up and tell him to stay close. I do not trust myself to carry him up the steep stairs. Each step is painful. My body is stiff and cramped from sitting in a crouched position for too long, but the true pain is from the intense shaking I feel. What will I find when I crawl out of the cellar? I push the trap door up and lift Jeremiah out of it then pull myself up.
The light is hard to adjust to and for a few seconds all I see is blinding sunlight, then slowly, my eyes adjust. I find myself crouching beside my parents. My mother is already gone. Were it not for the bleeding wound in her chest, I would be convinced she is only sleeping.
Dad looks at me slowly, his breathing is labored, and his hands are holding his chest, where he too is shot. He looks to be in terrible pain and I can hardly meet his gaze. Jeremiah stands beside me, not aware of what is happening. I feel hot tears boil over my eyelids and I grip his arm.
"Dad...” I cry barley able to speak. “Dad. How could they do this?”
"Addi." Joseph answers breathlessly, lifting a hand up to my cheek. "You're so brave...and strong," He pauses and coughs, blood spouting from his mouth "I know you will be okay." He smiles at Jeremiah too, and then looks back at me. "Promise me, Addi, Promise you will take care of him?"
I choke on the tears welling up stronger than before and nod. "I promise, daddy, I promise." I watch in complete helplessness as my dad’s eyes close and his hand falls limply from my cheek. I cough on my tears and grip his arm in a panic, looking from him to my mother.
“Come back!” I beg shaking him. “You can’t leave me, come back!”
I am alone now. It is over; they are suffering through an impoverished life. I know where they are. Dad spoke about heaven so much...I know where he is and I know mom dances alongside him. Their misery has ended. However, mine, mine has just begun.
I close my eyes and shiver as the rain pours over my cold body. I want to let it all out. I want to cry. Really, I just want my stay on earth to end. Joining my family in heaven is all I want. First, my parents died brutal deaths, then, my baby brother. I open my eyes to avoid images from just a few nights flashing in my mind. I look down at the three muddy graves at my feet. Two markers from just six years ago and the third set in the ground not two hours ago. I feel Zach beside be. I know he wants to go home and get out of the rain, but my hand gripping his arm keeps him from leaving.
“Addi…you can’t keep standing out here. You’re going to get yourself sick.” I feel his hand slip around my waist and with a slight amount of force; he pulls me away from the morbid, heart wrenching sight. I allow him to pull me along, ignoring the churning, withering feeling in my stomach. I secretly know there is no use fighting him.
“Let me get you home.”
I feel my heart sink at the idea of going to my empty, cold house. The gray walls and the creaking floorboards will only remind me of Jeremiah and his smiling freckled face. I shake my head.
“I can’t go home.”
Zach nods understandingly. “I bet my dad has a fire going and my mom will make you a cup of tea…come and let my mom give you a meal.”
I nod. Charity is not usually something I accept, but I do not have the strength to fight back or decline at all. Warmth is something I will not give up right now. I feel a tightening in my chest, a feeling I have experienced all too often, but this time, I feel as if I shall suffocate from the pain and constriction. There is no hope. Cereus killed a little boy; there is nothing that will shock me from now on.
“Zach…I need to come with you…to Barcelona.”
“We have talked about this.”
I lean in closer to him. “I know…but...never mind.” I do not even feel like negotiating. My usual spunk and fire is nowhere to be found. He senses this and I can feel it like a weak child within me. Taunting me, proving I am not as strong as I like to think.
“Let’s talk about it tomorrow when you have had a good nights sleep.”
I do not answer but release my tight grip on him and tuck my black hair behind my ears. It is soaking wet and clinging to my cold, pale skin. I look up at Zach, feeling my lower lip quiver slightly, yet no tears come.
“Tell me there is nothing I could have done.” I stop walking and look at the stead streams of water traveling down the ruts in the muddy road. Black clouds hover overhead and the normally rundown gray buildings look even drearier.
Zach takes my hands and strongly nods, looking determined and sure. “Even if you had been in the house…you couldn’t have done anything.”
I bite my cheeks and nod, trying to convince myself. “I can’t picture life without him. Everything reminds me of him. I keep imagining that I hear Jeremiah’s voice or his footsteps in the house.”
Zach looks at a loss for words. I cannot blame him. I would be too. I guess that is the amazing thing about him. He can be a comfort without speaking. Once again, he begins leading me toward our homes without a word. I see lights flickering from the Herbalists Cottage and the Night Owl which is a pub serving watered down beer. Mr. Jaeger runs the Night Owl and he will often offer to buy me a free drink. I decline of course. The market is dark and open hours have long since ended. Most people are indoors having meager suppers by now.
I see my home come into view. It is a dark and broken looking. Zach’s home right beside mine has lights flickering through the windows in the lower story and I can see Mrs. Burton bustling around the house.
Zach opens the door for me and I step into the well-warmed house. Mrs. Burton perks up at the sound of her son’s voice and she comes hustling out of the kitchen. She smiles sadly at me and wraps me in a kind, motherly embrace. I return the hug.
“How about something to eat, Addi?”
I nod and follow her into the kitchen where some fish is frying over the hearth. Zach goes up the stairs, I assume to see his dad who is often hiding out in his office developing all sorts of weapons and such.
“How hungry are you, dear?”
I look at the amble amount of food and do not feel shy about giving her swift nod, indicating just how famished I am. “I can eat.” I saw smiling gratefully as she hands me plate of fragrant food.
Mrs. Burton’s kind eyes settle on me and we both sit down at the small wooden table.
“How are you faring, Addison?” She reminds me of my mother. I guess that is why they got along before my mother died.
“I’m okay.” This is what I do. I hide my emotions from everyone...save maybe Zach. I can share anything with him. However, usually people who have known me my whole life know this.
“When I was younger,” Mrs. Burton began gently. “I lost my father. I bet you didn’t know that.”
I shake my head and listen while eating the filling meal.
“I was devastated. I tried to hold it in and I failed, in the meantime crying myself sick.” She smiled, her expression showing she has traveled to another time, yeas ago. “When I was eighteen I fell in love with a boy named James. He was strapping, twenty-two, and the most independent, rebellious toward Cereus boy I had ever met. He loved me back and we vowed once he got back from the Ten Year Peace we would marry.” She pauses and watches me intently, then continues. “He died in a bombing raid in Wales. “
I look at her, not sure what to say. “But…then you met Mr. Burton?”
A cheery smile overcomes her. “Chad came along about six months later. I thought I would never love again.” She pauses and takes my hand intently. “Love heals a lot. If you let it.”
I wonder what she can mean. Maybe I am not confused about it…but I wonder why she thinks it applies so heavily to me.
“How so?” I ask taking another bite of the fish.
“Knowing you are someone’s world and feeling them become yours…it is a feeling that seems to spill into the broken gaps of your heart.”
I nod slowly and finish my meal. “Thank you for supper.” I say gratefully. Her smile is kind, but sad as she clears my plate for me. I sit in the creaky wooden chair staring at my small hands, dry and strong from work. I feel my damp hair drying beside the fire and slowly curling naturally around my shoulders.
“I can’t even cry.” I whisper to her. She keeps working but I know she has heard me. “I haven’t cried in a long time. I didn’t even break down when he…died.”
Mrs. Burton scrubs down my plate and fork, then turns back to me, leaning on the cracked counter. “Maybe tears aren’t what you need.”
I do not understand what she could possibly mean, but I nod. Silence over comes both of us and I sit looking into the crackling fire while Mrs. Burton finishes cleaning the kitchen. I can hear muffled voices from upstairs where Zach and his two siblings, Pete and Toby are talking. Pete is seven and Toby is fifteen.
“I should go home.” I say finally standing and zipping my coat up.
Mrs. Burton touches my face gently and smiles at me with a look only mothers have.
“Your mamma would have been so proud of you…don’t let your sorrow cover all the good they taught you to keep close…don’t let vengeance lead you the wrong way.”
Zach appears around the corner and his father follows. They both look deep in conversation so I lower my voice so as not to disrupt them.
“Sometimes…vengeance is needed…sometimes people deserve what they have coming to them.”
I turn to leave but Mrs. Burton catches my hand. “Addison Black don’t you forget who you are.” She shakes her head, her wise old eyes peering into mine. “And don’t you forget all the Christ suffered. You and all others including myself deserve quite a bit yet he has given us a chance.”
I divert my gaze and nod. Mrs. Burton kisses my cheek and releases my wrist. “Don’t be a stranger Addi.”
I turn to Zach to say goodbye but look back at Mrs. Burton. “Your son makes that a difficult task for me, ma’am.”
I look back at Zach and lean in to hug him. “See you tomorrow.” I mutter before leaving the house with a quick nod to Mr. Burton. Zach follows me outside.
“Hey, Addi, Max’s town meeting is tomorrow. I guess it is open to the public because it effects more than just himself…so if you want to go watch it is at the town hall tomorrow at noon”
I nod. “I’ll be there.”
The house is creaky and just as cold as every night before this one. The sounds though, keep me awake. Every creak, every chilly breeze sneaking through from the cold cellar, the moonlight smearing onto the walls in my room…everything sends my senses into a memory of my brother.
I lay awake on my cold bed with my hands tucked under my head. My eyes are fixated on the roof as my mind travels from place to place, memory to memory…I cannot help but think way back to when I was younger and my mother would spend all day with my, teaching me how to care for Jeremiah and the house while my dad would be away working. I wonder where all the knowledge went. I know how to do most anything a man would, but the house shows severe neglect. I suppose when my folks died I lost all interest or sense of responsibility to the upkeep p of the house. My focus went spiraling to taking care of Jeremiah and that is where it stayed.
Somewhere, someday, Addi, you will find your sense of meaning and your place in the world and everything will make sense. Nevertheless, until then, you just have to keep searching for what it is you are meant to do.
I close my eyes and hear my mother’s voice. We were cooking a small meal out of some quail my father had hunted down. She never told me what I had to do or who I had to be in life. She just always encouraged me to carry on with my head held high.
Until you discover where you are going, do not let your dreams or your aspiration fade to nothing…it is easy for that to happen these days.
“If only you knew, mom…” I whisper. My words are lost in the night, and a thought makes me wonder if anyone can hear me. Is God even listening? If he has been for all these years, why hasn’t he helped me? I know this is a wicked thought…dad explained this sort of thing to me all the time before he died, but I still cannot help but wonder why he has never seemed to care about me.
“I hate that you left me.” I mutter, gripping a thin quilt to my chin. “I really need you now, mom…and you just…escaped. I used to think that I had it better cause I am alive. But you and dad…you guys got the easy way out.”
I cover my eyes with my hands and let out a shaky breath. Slowly the world around me grows fuzzy, I fall asleep, anger riddling my thoughts, and I picture my family safely in heaven while I lay here in terror and loneliness.
“Silence, I order silence!” Preacher Wickham leans onto the splintering wooden desk and eyes the large crowed that has gathered to see what choice is made about our friend Max.
It is a tricky situation he finds himself in, though it could have been worse. In Rouen and most of Europe as well, the custom is that at birth each infant is paired with another. Often, however there are large age gaps between couples. I am lucky to have been paired with Zach since we are so close in age. Max had this same luck at birth, but recently his promised died of starvation, a very common death in Rouen. He asked the preacher and the rest of the social committee in Rouen to be pardoned from the custom and be allowed to live a single man. A few months ago, a girl was born and no single boys were located for her. Max is the only single male at this time. This proves a problem. One for Max, who wishes to just remain single for his whole existence and also for this poor girl who would be married at thirteen to a thirty-year-old.
The crowed goes silent and Preacher Wickham eyes Max and the infant girl, Kara.
“Max Tomlinson, you know the customs of this community and yet you have pleaded your case to me asking tat you are not betrothed to another. If this was granted, what would you offer back to society in return?”
I groan inwardly and glance at Zach who sits beside me listening intently. This would be a difficult question to answer. What can we give back? Society offers us no solutions, no jobs, nothing in which we can invest.
Max stands and nods respectfully to Preacher Wickham. I hope he is able to get by whatever he means to say. He is not that great at talking in front of many people. He usually stumbles over his words.
“Preacher.” He smiles looking slightly nervous. “Honestly, the only thing I can do is hunt, Sir and I’d like to think I could sell to the others in return for being single. Truthfully, I believe it would be highly unfair to little Kara,” He nods quickly at a mother holding an angelic baby. “She would be subject to a marriage which no girl ought to. And I would be forced to marry a girl younger…far younger than myself.” He nods then sits down. Simple and to the point, the way Max likes it.
Preacher Wickham nods wordlessly then turns to look at three older men behind him. They all lean over small bits of parchment, writing away. Slowly, one by one they hand him their notes and Preacher Wickham turns back to the onlookers. The mother cradling her daughter looks like the pressure of the world is falling on her shoulders. Max sits with his elbows on his knees and his hands clenched beneath his chin.
“The custom of our town is to make sure everyone is paired to keep up the population. If we budge in one circumstance, everyone will wish for us to do so, therefore, I announce the betrothal of Maxwell Tomlinson and Kara Jacobs. A week after the girls thirteenth birthday she and Maxwell shall be joined in marriage.” Preacher Wickham rises and makes a hasty exit from the cold, drafty town hall building while a silence, followed by a disruptive shout of protest from the mother of Kara explodes.
“You can’t do this! She is only a little girl and he is a man!”
I feel pity for her and see Max feels almost worse about the girl’s situation than his own. He covers his face with his hands and shakes his head before rising and apologizing sincerely to the young woman.
Zach looks sidelong at me with a disturbed look before taking my hand and standing. We make our way to where Max is standing looking completely doomed.
“Man, I’m sorry.” Zach says slapping Max’s shoulder.
Max shrugs. “It’s thirteen years from now. I’m not to worried about it…either one of us could die before then anyway.”
I sigh. “You can’t hope for that though, Max…”
He shrugs and looks at me condescendingly. “You do.”
Zach shifts uncomfortably. “C’mon guys don’t start fighting again.”
I nod slowly, unsure how to respond. “Well,…at least I don’t hope for others to die.”
“I need to go…dad needs me at the shop.” Max’s family runs a small, almost dying blacksmith shop where Max runs the initial sales.
“See you later.” Zach says. We watch Max stride out of the building, and then Zach glances down at me. “What are your plans for the day?”
I bite my lower lip. “I’ll probably go visit my family.”
He looks concerned then leads me out into the fresh air. “I don’t think that is a good idea…why don’t we go and do something today?”
I force a smile and look up at him. “Such as?”
Zach shrugs and scuffs his boots into the dirt while looking deep in thought. “We could…go fishing.”
I start to protest then he smiles. “Oh, that’s right…you scare the fish away every time, eh…. Lets do something else. Why don't we go sit by the pond for a while? Get out of this town for a bit.”
I nod. The idea sounds nice. “Okay…I can handle that.”
Zach and I begin walking again.
“My mom seemed really worried about you last night after you left.”
I glance up at Zach and then shake my head trying to convince him otherwise. “There isn’t anything to be worried about. I’m fine, really.” I do not think he is convinced…though it is easy for him to see right through me.
“I know, and you know,” Zach says looking down at me with his all knowing half smile “that you aren’t okay. “
I shrug. “What can I do about it?” I feel my wall of emotional defense build up the way it always does when I don’t feel like telling someone how I feel. Zach leads me around a deep mud puddle in the road and lets out a deep sigh.
“I think we ought to talk about Barcelona…”
I glance up at him quickly, not wanting to let him see the hopeful look on my face.
“I…don’t want you to come,” he is quick to continue because leaving me enough time to comment on the simple first remark could be dangerous for him. “Believe me, Addi, it isn’t because I don’t want to be with you. It is because of how dangerous it will be…but…I also know you're going to come if you want to so there is no use telling you no. ”
I smile, genuinely up at him momentarily. He is such a clear-headed young man.
“I would rather you stay, but if I want to come I won’t say any more on it.”
“I need to go…I need to get out of here. I cannot walk past the cemetery every day. I cannot live in that house any more. I can’t even begin to explain to you how hard it is here. I need to…avenge them-please Zach, don’t take that the wrong way either…I just need to feel like I am doing something to repay them.”
Zach nods then looks down at me. “So should Max and I count on you to be joining us next week?”
My eyes trail past him to a few skeletal trees and I nod with determination. Yes,.”
Zach tilts his head slightly to budge into my view of the trees and his eyes lock with mine. “You okay, Addi? I’m so worried about you.”
For the first time since Jeremiah’s death I feel that burn in the corners of my eyes and in my nose. I can feel the pressure building up in my throat. “I can’t handle this.” I motion around me and feel long awaited tears spill over my cheeks; each minute drop seems to contain a tiny bit of my pain. “I don’t know how to cope or move on? What am I supposed to do?”
Zach looks down at me compassionately but I can see he has no idea what to do or how to comfort me. For some reason, this makes me feel worse and the tears come harder.
“Tell me what I should do!”
Zach bites his lower lip and shrugs. “I can’t answer that…I just…don’t know.” He lets out a heavy sigh and gives me a slight half smile.
I lean into him and let my tears flow freely; no shame in my weakness confronts me. “I just want to make someone suffer…in repayment for all the wrong the government has done. No one ever thinks the way the world works around them is going to effect them directly and monumentally but it does and it has!”
Zach wraps an arm over my shoulder and rubs my arm gently. “I’m sorry…”
I shake my head and suddenly feel bad that his shirt is soaked with my tears. “Not like it’s your fault.”
He leans back a bit so he can see my face, his deep eyes search mine and I can feel compassion seep from him into me. “You’ll be okay.”
I nod and rub my face free of tears. Zach tucks a lock of my stray hair behind my ear and shoots me his gorgeous half smile.
“You’ll be okay because you’re a Black and everyone knows that them Blacks have a fearless, ongoing strength.”
I feel a small but genuine smile steal over my face. “That’s us!” My eyes lower and I lean back into a sitting position. “That’s me…there isn’t an ‘us’ anymore…”
Zach drapes his forearms over his knees and lets his head fall back as he studies the sky. “Addi…you have got to shake this eternal gloom. I get how much pain you are in but you can’t live in the past…you need to look forward and give life its best chance. That’s what you’re parents would want. They wouldn’t want this pathetic moping to define you.”
A small flock of birds bust out of some tall grass to our left and I flinch, the shock of Zach’s blunt statement and their sudden appearance causing me to divert my gaze from the handsome boy next to me. Can he has meant to sound so heartless? I know it cannot have been his intent to sound so uncaring, but his oh so emotionless and manly words cut me slightly.
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Zach questions tearing at some brown grass.
“Maybe that you haven’t experienced the loss I have so it is very easy for you to tell me to just shake my ‘eternal gloom.'” My response spills off my lips sharper than I mean them to and I regret the statement the second I say it. Obviously it doesn’t affect Zach to deeply because he just shakes his head and looks at me with a sort of exasperated look.
“I might not have lost people the way you have but I still live in the same world as you and the hardships don’t go unnoticed by me or the rest of this whole entire town. We all struggle.”
I turn my back to him slightly and silently let out an annoyed breath before looking back at him and trying to politely answer. “Are you implying that you and everyone else equate their hardships with the loss of my mother, father, and Jeremiah? Because if you think going hungry as a family is equal to going hungry alone, remembering the brutal deaths of your family, you are severely mistaken.”
Zach shakes his head. “That is not what I mean at all. You have endured more than most but that means you should have a stronger endurance. Walking around with an everlasting black cloud over your head is not what I would consider strength. You need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, dig in your heels and stop crying over what you cannot change.”
I bit my lips. Fighting isn’t worth it. I value our relationship too much to carry out a fight that any man would continue simply because they are male. A pool of tears boils into my eyelids but I push them back and look back at Zach.
“I can’t keep fighting with you.”
He looks suddenly saddened and he nods quickly before standing and pulling me to my feet.
I shake off my anger and force a smile. “I should got see if I can barter with anyone for some food.”
“You could always just come home with me…mom is always happy to give you a meal…it feeds her maternal desire to see you healthy and full as I have heard her say.”
I smiles for real and shake my head. “I need to get some planning done for Barcelona done anyway. I should go.”
Zach puts his arms around me me before allowing me to go my way. “Don’t get yourself into any trouble Addi.” He teases as I waltz off.
A smile tears at the corners of my lips and I remember the story behind him perpetually always telling me not to get into trouble.
“That is my order fair and square, Josh Phillips and you know it!”
“I don’t see your name on it!”
“That’s because you just took it off and put it in your pocket!”
“Like you can prove that, Addison Black. You’re nothing but a poor orphan trying to support a dying brother. Everyone knows you’d steal from a blind preacher to get what you need.”
“That’s not true and everyone knows you’re a slimy hunter’s son who is only well fed because he takes from his daddy. And don’t think that people don’t see you sneaking off to Scarlett’s Place. Oh yes, Josh news spreads quickly.”
“Who cares if I go there or not? Anyway, this is my order now and there is nothing you can do about-wow all right Addison, put the gun away…there is no need for people to get hurt.”
“Someone’s going to get hurt if you don’t give me the order I bargained for, and if you think about grabbing the gun under your shirt, I will blast a hole the size of Mars in your forehead.”
The black market of Rouen is a slimy and very illegal establishment run from an old sewer drainage underground. If you save up enough money you can order a basket of stolen goods taken from Ranks’ camps in the surrounding areas. Nevertheless, you save up for about three years and buy only one year’s worth of food. Have run out since then and don’t have nearly enough money to get another basket. That day a huntsman’s son named Josh Phillips thought to test me and try to steal my order. A long story short, I drew a gun on him and he drew his. A few shots were fired before someone heard it. That someone was Zach who bolted down and had to break us up, barley dodging bullets. That is the way things are in Rouen. You fight for what is yours. Josh hasn’t bothered me since but I think that is because Zach had …man-to-man talk with him. I think in most circumstances that means he beat the senses out of Josh.
I shudder at the memory. Not so much over the fact we were shooting at each other, more over the memory of me even breathing the name of Scarlett’s Place. It is the most disgusting building in all of Rouen. All respectable girls avoid even going down the street it is located on in fear of her appearance being marred. Only the most desperate, poor girls go there when in need of money. A woman named Scarlet about fifty years ago started it. I guess she was a friend of my grandmother’s. Scarlett got in a bind and needed money and thus the terrible place was born. Worst is, even the Ranks stop in there while passing through. I would rather be skinned than be that kind of traitor. I shake the thought and make my way to see Charlie Grubs. I don’t ask him where he gets all his supplies and food. I think in the long run, for when he is probably found out by a Rank or Cereus, it is best to know nothing. But Grubs, as I call him, has all sorts of stuff for a good price. I feel the few coins in my pocket And hope they’ll get me a bit of food. I don’t know how long Grubs has been in the trade nor can I remember when I first met him, but I know he is a compassionate person as opposed to Mr. Porter who is basically highway robbery in the lowest of forms. One would think this societal collapse would bring the human race together…but one has to think again on that. The greed is unbelievable.
“Grubs.” I knock on his stick built shack and try to peer through the wicker shades. “Its Addison Black.”
I hear a shuffling inside and Grubs unlocks his barred door. He is pretty radical. He has booby traps set around his house that he can trigger by stepping on a single floorboard. That is why no one enters his house. The few who have made that mistake end up hurt pretty bad. He also has a lot of unregistered guns laying around in about every imaginable place.
“Miss Black.” He mutters pulling a cigar out of his mouth. “What can I get for you?”
I pull out the seventy cents from my pocket and show it to him.
“What can I get with this?”
Grubs leans on the door jam. “Depends. What do you want and how much of it?”
I pocket the money again and prepare myself for a round of bartering, like always. “I’m not really very picky. You know that. I just want food. I won’t expect anything more.” I do need a gun better than the old one I have, but I know better than to hope for something so priceless as that for seventy cents plus some food.
“I could give you one carrot…” He stops to think. “A quarter cup of flower…a grouse leg, and maybe a sip of wine for seventy cents.”
Like I said...he offers good deals. In fact I don’t think he knows much of profit, then again, I don’t know how he gets his goods so I don’t think twice about it. “No wine, carrot, or flour. That is all useless to me. Any eggs? I want the grouse leg.”
He looks over his shoulder. I glance past as well and can see stacks of barrels, bags, boxes, and shelves scantily stocked with supplies. “No eggs. I have a bit of bread though…some coffee grinds…a few slices of ham and some milk I’d be willing to part with.”
My mouth waters at the thought of the good food. I don’t dare ask how he came by milk but nod.
“Obviously, Miss Black, it’d all be in small portions.”
“I’ll take it. I couldn't care less about the bread. As much ham as you can offer would be great while including some milk, the grouse leg, and coffee.”
Grubs nods and sticks the cigar back in his mouth before turning to go compile my request. I step away from the door and look around. No one is down the part of town. Only old dumpsters and burnt houses are down here anymore, which is probably why he lives here.
“Them damned Ranks came snooping round the other day,” He shouted from his location in the house. “They tried to get in the house. Don’t worry…I took care of them.” I feel sick. Not sick because I know he means he killed them, but sick because of how little it bothers me.
“Doesn’t that bother you…to just…take care of them?” I ask leaning against the side of the house impatiently. Grubs returns holding a dirt-smudged sack full of my supplies.
“Guess I am numb to it. I’m probably going to pay for it with the Man upstairs…”
A chilly wind pushes through the old alley way and I shiver, glancing at him with a quick nod. “Guess we’re all going to pay for something…if that’s how it works.”
Grubs hands me the bag and I count out the change into his extended hand. “Thanks, Grubs…I really appreciate it.”
Grubs nods and shuts his door, closing himself in as if he was never here. I back away from the door and begin my cold, long walk home. In truth, Rouen is only a few miles wide if you include the way the roads have now been build through farmland and weave around in meaningless ways, though as the crow flies, it can’t be that much.
I feel a very thin mist begin to fall from the sky and spray my face. I think back to Zach and I’s argument. An hour later, it doesn’t hurt as bad as it did in the moment. We have survived so much more, I give scarce a thought to his words, but I do dwell on my own. I may have the strength of a Black, but I also have the sharp, fiery words of a Black too. I can’t help but hope I didn’t make Zach feel like I think his life is easier than mine just because no one in his family has died.
A chill wind alerts me that the sun is going down and the day is ending. I glance up at the sky and see darkness in the distance. No use staying out longer. The roughest of people, men in particular, slink around at night and a smart girl such as myself won't be caught outside in between ten and three in the evening. I hurry home, passing the graveyard as I go. My eyes fall on the rusted iron gate surrounding the burial place. A few lone trees, dead and gray grow toward the sky in a few spots, making the graveyard look even sadder. I feel a dense, lonely feeling pass over my chest as I realize, even though technically I never forgot, that I am going back to an empty house. I feel a singe tear run down my cheek followed by several more.
"Can't someone have stayed with me?" I look up at the darkening sky above. "Didn't anyone stop to think that I still need someone? It's not like Jeremiah or mom and dad were the only people who needed each other!" I yell my anger into the cold air, ignoring the pitied looks from a few people passing. I lean back on the iron fence around the graveyard and cover my face with my hands. I take deep deliberate breaths in hopes of calming myself. "Guess I am just not worth sticking around for."
"Oh you're worth it..."
I spin around on my heels and let out a thankful sigh seeing that it is just Max. "You didn't sound like yourself."
Max half smiles. "Sorry."
I wave my hand as if to brush it off, secretly wondering if he is sorry for scaring me just now or if he is sorry for our argument earlier. "No big deal...um...yeah." I shrug of my embarrassment at the thought he'd just heard my ranting. "Sorry about what you just heard."
Max shakes his head. "Don't worry about it, Addi..." He scratches his head as he always does when he's agitated. "I've been moping today anyway."
I bit my lower lip and nod quickly. "Yeah, gee, Max, I'm so sorry about you and...Kara." I almost said 'the baby' but I figured that would just make him feel worse.
"Me too. I don't know who I feel worse for...me or her."
I think for a moment of whom I'd feel worse for and I decide Kara will have the worst of it when she is grown up. It would be terrible beyond words to have to marry someone over twice as old as myself. The poor girl...Max is old enough to be her dad right now...yes, she will have it worst. "I think it is unfortunate for both of you...seeing as she could be your daughter...but you never know what things will change. Time changes a lot."
"You mean that policies and rules will change? I don't see that happening."
"I guess you're right. Nothing ever changes but for the worse round here."
Max crosses his arms and nods with a lost expression on his face. "Nothing but the worst around here."
Not sure what else to say, I bob my head in a "heck with it" way and give him a friendly punch in the shoulder. "Amen to that I guess."
It is terribly cold inside the house so I snap a leg off an already broken chair and try to coax a flame in the stone cold hearth. A light glow and a tinge of warmth fills the room after a long while so I settle into the only whole chair I have and I spend a long, long time staring at the tiny flame. I see it dancing, slowly, blissfully, and lightheartedly off the smooth surface of the wood. It casts its shadow in one place then it is gone, shadowing another. All these small details spurred simply from the fire make me wonder what life could hold for me. Will I leave my mark somewhere? Could there be even a minute possibility that I might just be something more than a shadow? Could I become a flame? I have nothing. Nothing to give, nothing to hold on to, nothing to keep close as a hope. I don't know why Zach stays with me. If I cannot even find something within myself to cling to, what could he possibly have? There is nothing warm or endearing about me. I am cold, hard, rigid and shut out from everyone and everything. I love Zach with all my heart...or what is left of it, but I have nothing left to give. My heart is scattered along the path which is my life. Pieces of it are left here and there, slowly crumbling into nothing. I guess even a broken heart still feels something. I am a massive pile of ruins. I don't know what has saved me, but I have, through my sad life seen many girls with my same kind of background surrender to the warmth and lifestyle of Scarlett's Place. I guess they just gave up. I never considered it. I have more dignity than that but of course I see how it could happen.
I close my eyes and blindly pull my hair over my shoulder, breathlessly wondering what a world like the one I have read about in history could be like for me. Who would I have been? Surly not a snobby rich girl, that just isn't in the cards for me, but what I can't help but wonder about if it is simply my lot in life, no matter what world I am in, to live without my family, or if I would have been a normal girl with her parents and brother.
I wish it would all end...just be over. Dying, it would be so easy, so simple and I would be with my family again. This would all be over...but it would also be selfish.
Give up...go on, give up. No one will miss you. It will me so, so easy to just call I quits. See your parents...little Jeremiah again.
I stand up quickly out of the creaky old chair and grab a handful of my hair, feeling tears boil in my eyes. "No!" I kick the chair and then sink to the ground beside the fire. "Lies...they're all lies. It won't be easier." I convince myself slowly and surly. I know I have to push on and not allow this misery to lead me down a path I don't want to be on.
I wake up to a knock at the door. My neck is sore and a chill runs through me. I have fallen sleep next to the now dead fire. My eyes are tender and sore. I pull myself to my feet and allow my eyes to adjust to the darkness before making my way to the door. It is Zach. A tinge of confusion comes over me but I brush it aside. Visiting hours between us aren't limited.
"Zach." I say hoping he doesn't notice how red and puffy my eyes must be.
"Addi." He looks over his shoulder into the darkness then back at me. "Sorry to wake you. I thought you might like to know that I just got done talking to Preacher Wickham. He wants to talk to us tomorrow."
I feel all thoughts pause for a moment before I register what exactly this could mean. "I see."
Zach lets out a heavy sigh, and then gestures over his shoulder towards where the Preacher lives. "I asked him if we could put it off a while but he said no."
"That doesn't surprise me." I answer leaning on the door jam. I feel a bit of sadness as I realize I really don't want to do this. I don't want to marry Zach...at least not right now and I certainly am not ready to get married. I feel myself unburying hatred for our society the way I do every time they infringe on what should be my rights. "So...I guess I'll see you tomorrow?"
He squints down at me in the dark. "Yeah. I'll meet you there. We are to be at his house at one."
I shrug and bite my lower lip with a short nod. "Night then..."
I close the door and lean against it letting out a sigh. "Now this happens?" I close my eyes and stand there for what seems like an eternity. I think of my mom and words she told me before she died come to mind.
I didn't always love your dad. In fact, I hated him with everything in my even after we had to marry.
How did you come to love him then?
Addi, love isn't strictly something that happens to those who welcome it. I think the first time I can remember loving him is when you were born. I tolerated him before then and even started to like him, but love only happened after you came.
Did he love you when you got married?
No. Not at all. He hated me just as much as I hated him.
But you love each other now?
More than anything in the world. I cannot imagine life without him...
I don't think it registered to me until I was sixteen how blessed I am to not hate Zach. Not hating him is a blessing alone, but loving him is beyond something most people in Rouen can brag at marriage. I think this would be easier news if my mom and dad were here now. I know it would. Mom would have prepared me for this the way mothers do. The way her mother prepared her to the best of her ability and the way little Kara's mother will be preparing her. I open my eyes with a shrug and slowly make my way to my room to get a few more hours of sleep. They won't plan the wedding to happen for a few months anyway so I don't need to worry too much about it. They'll announce the wedding at church on Sunday, which I don't even go to so I won't be mortified like most girls are. I will receive lots of visitors congratulating me, but if I am out of the house at the pond or if I don't answer the door, I won't have to face them and put on a smile. Then it'll die down for about two months until the wedding.
I wake up to sunlight streaming in through my window and leaking into my eyes. A bird is singing outside my window and the wind is blowing around a few leaves. I stand up and pull my boots on, tucking a loose strand of hair behind my ear. I walk to the bathroom and look into the cracked mirror, beginning to tidy up before going to visit the Preacher. His wife is as tidy as one can be in our town and I always feel like she is looking down on me. My fingers nimbly weave the knots out of my hair and then I was my face. I sigh as I examine a few black strands of hair that are too short to be captured in the braid. My eyes aren't puffy or red anymore and in the dim light, I actually look pretty. I guess I don't dwell on my looks much. What is the use? I wander into my room and pull on a long, clean blue shirt and pull it over my gray pants, which are tucked into my boots. I put a belt around my waist to keep the shirt in place then pull my jacket on. I might as well get some work done before going to see the preacher. I exit the house with my head bent low so as to avoid the pitiful looks of everyone I pass. In an extremely small town such as Rouen, it is nearly impossible for news such as me finally being the only person left in the Black bloodline to go unheard by everyone.
I can only imagine what and how Preacher Wickham would word it. He always makes things so awkward. Even situations that would never be uncomfortable become so because of how he words things. I can be certain that I will spend the whole time mentally shaking my head.
"Could it be Joseph Black's grown up daughter?" I pause. I don't recognize the voice belonging to the middle aged man in front of me. He looks like he has been traveling a very long way.
"Who are you?" I ask eyeing his filthy attire from head to foot.
"Henry Forbes." He pauses and a small, faint smile spreads over his face. "You have grown into such a beautiful girl. You parents would have been proud of you."
My eyes narrow and I slowly feel my hand inch to the small of my back where a gun is concealed. "How do you know me?"
"I knew your father. He told me to look out for you if anything ever happened to them.
I scoff and then cross my arms over my chest, eying him critically. "Really?" I roll my eyes. "You sure didn't listen well then.” I gesture towards the direction of my house. “I mean, you’re a bit late to help now.” I start walking and brush past him, shaking my head and wondering if what makes him think he can fool me
The use of my nickname stops me and I glance down at my feet with a worried sigh before turning around and with the strongest look I can muster. “Listen, Henry Forbes, I am not really appreciative of people coming up to me randomly and announcing that they promised my father they would take care of me. It really doesn’t settle well. You know why? Because if this is true, you have failed, let me down and left me to fend for myself.”
A sad look envelops him and he lets out a heavy sigh. “I know…but communications went wrong. I never thought anything bad would happen to your father so I left. I went to America. And I never heard that your parents died. I only recently returned. A smuggling job out of Barcelona and I got news that young Jeremiah Black had died and the only person left in the Black family line was you. I knew something had gone wrong and I came immediately.”
My eyes narrow and I stare at Henry, searching his eyes. I don’t know if I ought to trust him, but something about his eyes and the familiar way he looks at me is too difficult to ignore. “Explain yourself a bit more…”
He laughs and walks along side me. “You’re just like your mother.” He gestures towards me. “You have grown up so much since I last saw you.”
I stop him. “Wait, we have met…in person?”
He nods. “Your dad and I were friends growing up. I lived here in Rouen when I was younger. I was at your parents wedding. I remember when your dad told me that your mother was pregnant with you and then you were born. You were a beautiful baby and your father was so excited…so proud.”
I feel tears well up. Henry has no proof…but something inside tells me he is true. “That’s nice.” I say quickly brushing a tear away before he sees. “Keep talking, I am not convinced.”
He smiles slightly and nods. “You were about three when I decided to go help out in America.”
I want to cut him off and ask about what he is doing in America, but I keep listening.
“Your dad doesn’t like the idea. I was always going to be the one to watch out for you if anything ever happened to your parents. We set up a communication system. It was certain I would come back to Barcelona from America at least once every six months. So, the Burtons-“
I cut him off now. “Wait, what have the Burton’s got to do with this.”
“They were never to breath a word of me so as not to give you or Jeremiah false hope. But Jenifer and Lewis Burton were to send a letter to Barcelona and give it to some smugglers who reside there all the time if anything ever happened to your parents. The smugglers would give it to me each time I returned to Barcelona. I went to America five years ago and our submarine broke down. We didn’t have the parts to fix it and so was stuck there. I finally returned a month ago to find two letters waiting for me. One telling me both of your parents were dead and a second saying that Jeremiah was also gone and you were alone now.”
I choke on tears, but push them back. I begin shaking my head before looking into his keen eyes. “I don’t think you are foolish enough to expect me to believe you. You have no proof.”
Henry smiles compassionately. “You were born May sixteenth 2094. Your mother’s name was Cora and your father’s was Joseph. There is a scar on your knee from when you were first learning to walk. You fell on a rock and you were cut deeply.”
My brow furrows and I realize everything he has said is true. “You could have found that out any number of ways.”
“Explain how I could possibly know that your mother used to rock you to sleep at night singing The Song of the Swallow. “
I sigh and close my eyes slowly, in-taking what he has said. “Look, you may have known my parents and they may have appointed you with the task of watching over me but you’re a little late and…I don’t want your help.
I begin to walk away but Henry grasps my arm. “Addison! “I tear my arm out of his grasp and spin around to face him. “Don’t touch me!” It is at this moment that Zach comes out of his house. I notice him stop, give and odd glance at Henry, then he marches over towards us with a dominating air.
“Who are you?” He asks stepping in between Henry and I. I peer around him simply for the pleasure of noticing Henry’s shocked expression.
“I am Henry Forbes, who are you, young man?”
Zach looks over his shoulder at me, and then glances back at Henry. “None of your concern. What I really want to know is why I saw you grabbing Addison.” His tone is strong and gives off a feeling that Henry might not want to question him. I wonder if Zach can really feel as confident as he sounds. He is talking to a man twice his age.
“I only want her to hear me out.” Henry replies calmly. “I need her to understand…how needed she is.”
My eyes narrow and I step up beside Zach. “You haven’t breathed a word about me being needed. You have just been rambling on like a fool about how you knew my family and you have been naming off facts about me.”
Zach looks sidelong at me with a conspicuous expression. “Why do you need Addison?”
Henry lets out an aggravated sigh. “I need her because I can trust the strength and courage she has in her. The Black’s have always been strong and undeniably brave. That asset is not something to give up when it comes to the War on Ranks.
I feel myself stiffen and both Zach and I stare for a few seconds at Henry before I speak. “The War on Ranks…come again?”
Henry looks like he is about to speak, but he pauses, then nods to himself as if he has decided how he shall convey his case. “Look, I don’t know who could be listening so I cannot say.”
Zach tugs on my arm. “I need to talk to Addison for a second…please excuse us.” I follow, slightly relieved to be escaping Henry and his strange notions. Zach pulls me to face him and he quickly glances over at Henry to be sure he is not eavesdropping.
“Does he claim to know you?”
I nod and shrug it off. “Apparently...but I have no memory of him.”
Zach shakes his head. “So why is he here?”
“I don’t really understand Zach. He says he was supposed to come take care of Jeremiah and I if anything happened to my parents but somehow he didn’t get word until a month ago. I don’t know if I buy it.”
Zach scoffs. “I don’t think you should.”
“I agree, Zach…but I also don’t think he is anything to be worried of. Why would he want to harm me?”
Zach takes another glance at Henry then looks back down at me. “You’re a pretty girl living alone. That makes you venerable. I think that gives us reason enough to be worried when a strange man approaches you like Henry just did.”
I smiles at his protective nature. “He’s not going to hurt me.” I look over my shoulder to see Henry watching us with a strange, affectionate smile. I shiver and look back up at Zach. “But if you’re worried about it, believe me I will have no problem spending the day with you.”
He grins and takes my hand. “I’ll go take care of him first…unless you want to.”
I gesture towards Henry. “Have at it.”
I watch as Zach walks up to Henry and shoves his hands in his pockets. I can’t hear exactly what they say, but I hear something about “…never touch her again…” “Stay away”, and “if I catch you near her again…” But I missed the repercussions of violating whatever rules Zach had set in tact. I accept Zach’s extended hand and we walk away from Henry, who is standing looking at us. There is no defeat in his composition. He looks completely composed with a barley noticeable smile on his face.
“Well…seems like you took care of that.” I say looping my arm with his.
Zach shrugs and then smiles down at me. “I am not so sure.”
“What do you mean?” I ask inquisitively while watching the Night Owl ahead of us grow closer and closer. “You don’t think he will try to speak to me again?”
Zach is left wordless for a few moments and he seems to be deep in thought. I wait patently for a reply, which finally comes. “I am not convinced what he says isn’t true. I only sent him away because I don’t trust him fully enough and I don’t like the fact he grabbed you.”
I shake my head and stop, turning to face him. “It can’t be so. You know what he told me?”
“He said that you’re parents knew about this and that they were supposed to somehow get ahold of him if things went wrong.”
Zach’s eyes study mine for a while then he shakes his head in confusion. “Don’t you think I would have somehow known of this?”
I nod. “You would think. Which is why I am not so sure.”
“We could always ask them.” Zach suggests. “If it is true and they know he is here, wouldn’t they want to speak with him?”
I consider his theory and bob my head in agreement. “I guess…but I don’t see your parents keeping this from me for all these years. If I had a living guardian they would have told me.”
Zach begins walking again and takes my hand, pulling me along to follow. “Possibly.” He shakes his head. “I feel like I would have heard of this at some point too.”
I pull my black hair over my shoulders and look up at him, biting my lower lip, feeling slightly stressed over this whole ordeal. “Problem solved. He is just a creepy old man who is looking for trouble.”
Zach chuckles slightly then nods with that sort of expression only he can pull off. “I could think of other words to label him but you can stick with creepy if you like.”
“What do you mean?” I smile up at him.
He peers down at me through his light brown hair and then shakes his head. “Never mind…look, I have got you to smile for at least five minutes in a row.”
I divert my gaze to avoid looking flirty to the rest of Rouen’s citizens who are bustling around about their work. “You have a way of doing that.”
“Now it is my turn to ask what you mean?”
I slip my hands behind my back and walk backward while smiling at him. “Let’s test my theory.” I do a full three-sixty and look around for a schoolgirl. I see one I recognize and turn back to face Zach. “Okay Mr. naïve. See Susan Leek over there. Don’t look now but I bet you…” I stop to think of something to bet then grin again. “I bet you a jump into the pond that when you look over at her she is going to beam like you just handed her the moon. Now look.”
Zach shakes his head. “That’s ridiculous.” Then he looks. I follow his gaze and nod feeling satisfied when Susan sends a shy smile his way. I glance up at Zach with an I-told-you-so look. Zach shrugs it off masking a faint smile. I leap ahead and point at him.
“You are jumping into that pond. That was the deal.”
“No! I never agreed.”
“But you looked.” I say sliding into step with him.
“I am not getting into the pond!” He says smiling at him.
I nod. “Oh yes you are.” I leap at him and let out a quick laugh as he bolts away from me. “Come back!”
We run past the Night Owl, in between the Market and the Herbalist’s and through the grassy meadow to where the pond lays. “In the pond Zachary Burton!”
Zach runs a full lap around the pond before I finally catch up to him and we collide at the edge of the pond. I grasp at his arms, trying not to let my laughter explode to loudly while Zach braces his feet into the dirt and presses his hands into my shoulders.
“You think you’re going to win this, Addi?” He questions nearly toppling me over into the icy cold pond.
“If I go in, you’re coming too!”
Zach lets out a humored laugh and leans into me until I feel myself completely lose balance.
“No!” I yell while laughing and holding onto him as tightly as I can. Suddenly he loses his balance as well and comes crashing down. We both submerge. The cold water shocks me and the water twists my hair around my face. I struggle to reach the surface. I emerge about the time Zach does. Both of us let out shocked laughs. I feel my teeth chattering from the cold and Zach looks to be juts as chilled.
“You lunatic!” Zach says splashing water in my face before climbing out of the pond. I swim to the slimy edge of the pond and allow him to help me out.
“You’re the one who didn’t go in voluntarily.” I say with a smile. “And technically you pushed me in.”
“No! You pulled me in!”
I begin walking away from the pond. “Needless to say…I know you noticed how Susan totally lit up. I’m telling you Zach, you have that effect on us ladies.”
Zach shakes his head. “No. She was just curious why we were both looking at her.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Do I need to prove myself further because I can parade you through town past every teenage girl and…” I stop to think. “Perhaps even the ones a bit older and they will melt..”
Zach shrugs. “Well it means nothing to me. “
I follow the path this time and simply smile at Mr. Porter who stares with a confused look at Zach and I as we stride through town dripping water. We walk in silence for quite some time passing all the small shops and small businesses. I feel my chest begin to constrict as we come close to the graveyard. It seems there is a constant bit of fog always trapped in the small bowl where the graveyard is located. I divert my gaze and pick up my pace. Zach matches my swift gate and glances down at me. I pretend not to notice his look of concern.
“So um…are we going to talk to your parents before we head to see the Preacher?”
Zach shrugs. “We can. But I need to change and you probably want to as well. I don’t think the Preacher would not like it if we walked into his house wet.”
I roll my eyes. “I guess. I don’t know why he is so preppy. It isn’t like he has anything of value in there.”
“Him and Mr. Porter are both highly materialistic. I don’t know how they can be that way while living in a town where owning a dish that isn’t cracked is priceless…. but I think they probably get along well.”
I scoff and shake my head looking up at Zach wondering if her is serious. “Really? You think Mr. Porter and the preacher get along well? Mr. Porter is a heathen compared to the Preacher. I can see Preacher Wickham like…condemning him.” I point my fist at the sky and deepen my voice. “Mr. Porter you have frequented the Night Owl seven times this week! You shall pay for this, Mr. Porter you shall. “
Zach grins and puts an arm around my waist. “Oh, Addi, you are a strange girl.”
I giggle and force myself not to think about the pain that is rising up in my chest. I close my eyes momentarily and shake off the urge to go home and shut out the world until my sorrow passes. I wonder if this is how it will always be. Will I always have mood swings where one second I am happy and loving my life and the next I am feeling like I lost my family just yesterday?
Zach turns his face to the sky. “Bout that time, huh?” He says picking up his pace. “I guess this is the one time we actually have to be punctual.”
I sigh. “I can only imagine how awkward this is going to be.”
“He has a way of doing that.”
I look at Zach and nod in agreement. “Yeah, I mean if this was like…I don’t know…your dad having this conversation with us it wouldn’t be as weird.”
Zach lets out an aggravated puff of air. “Anything my dad says or does is awkward…or at least shameful.”
I feel a tinge of compassion for him. His dad is great sometimes but others it is like he has shifted into a new man…an angry drunkard. “I think your dad…has gotten better over the years. “ This is the truth, though only in the slightest. A few ears ago his dad was drunk every night. I don’t recall that these intoxicated rages ever turned into physical assaults but I do know that often I could hear Mr. and Mrs. Burton yelling at each other from inside my own home. Sometimes when it was bad, Zach would bring Toby and Pete over to my house until it was done.
“Not really.” Zach replies. “They just don’t yell as loud.”
I reach for his hand. “At least Toby and Pete have you as an example.”
“What good that does them.” He states blankly, sounding irritated.
“No. You’re doing the best you can.”
“I could do better. Pete seems to be just fine…but it’s Toby I am concerned about.”
“In what manner?” I question, hoping over a dirty puddle.
Zach looks down at me. I can suddenly see the weight of the world reflecting in his eyes and I feel a saddened pain to know he carries all this. “He doesn’t pull his weight around the house. He has been bullying Pete at school…him and some other kids got caught with cigarettes behind the schoolhouse the other day. I have no idea where they got them and he refuses to speak on it. I told him to grow up yesterday when he was still sleeping at nine o’ clock and he told me I wasn’t his dad so he didn’t have to listen to me. “ He suddenly sounds desperate and I squeeze his hand in reassurance. “So I try to talk to dad about it and he says that Toby will grow up when he is ready to.”
I bite my lower lip. “What could you do to help him along?”
“See that’s what I don’t know! I tried to get him to help with the chores. When I was his age I was doing everything alone and unfortunately I still am because he is so lazy.”
I rack my brain for an idea, then smile when I stumble across one. “Zach…what if he comes with us. To Barcelona I mean?”
Zach shakes his head. “Addi, he would be a liability.”
I stare up at Zach with disbelief. “Give him a chance…he’s your brother and…wouldn’t you want an older brother wouldn’t you want him to do what he could?”
Zach looks to be considering my question. “Yes, but not at the risk of my life and many others.”
“I would do it…” I force out the words. “For Jeremiah if he were here and in Toby’s position.”
Zach looks down at me sympathetically. “Addi, you would never be in this position. You were doing a better job with him than me and my parents together are doing with Toby.”
I shake my head slowly. “No, Zach. He was still a baby. He wasn’t a handful yet. I wouldn’t be so sure I would do much better. I am not a man. I couldn’t have raised a boy to be a man.”
“You’re wrong Addi, you would have been fine.” He nods looking very sure of himself. “Toby is defiant to the idea being a man.”
“Well…you turned out wonderful,” Zach looks ready to cut me off and disagree with me but I continue quickly “no, you really did. What…or how did you accomplish that? I don’t recall you dad being very invested in your upbringing.”
Zach shrug and answers as if it is all so simple. “I felt like I had a responsibility to my mother and you. I knew I needed to be a man.”
I smile to myself and lean in a little closer to him. “Awe…you do take care of me. ” I become serious again. “Try giving Toby some responsibility. Maybe tell him he needs to be Pete’s guard and make sure nobody and nothing hurts him.”
Zach smiles at me. It is just one of those smiles that melt my heart. His eyes almost smile more than his lips. His deep, dark eyes just light up making him look so very handsome.
“Oh Zach, please don’t smile like that to a girl prettier and more worthy of you than I, you’ll steal her heart and then she’ll steal you.”
He leans down and steals a kiss. I try to look scornful but can only smile. “Addi, you forget we are about to walk into the preacher’s house so he can arrange the announcement of our wedding.”
I smile mischievously. “Nothing is for sure until the actual wedding. You could meet some pretty girl and run away with her, throwing all traditions to the wind.”
“You give yourself little credit. The only girl I would ever run away with is you. I don’t think God created a more beautiful girl.”
I feel heat rise to my cheeks and I shake my head, smiling and trying not to laugh. “And you wonder why I love you.”
Zach shrugs, trying to look innocent. “I ask myself that same question every day!”
I gasp and laugh a little! “As in you ask yourself why you love me?”
He lets out a hearty laugh. “No I just wonder why you love me, I know why I love you.”
I skip a few steps pulling him along with me. “And why is that, Zachary Burton?”
He pretends to have to think and then nods decidedly. “Lets see, your smart, your fiery, you are absolutely stunning even when you’re soaking wet and your hair is all over the place. Honestly your amazing ways are too numerous to list."
I smile and push back a stabbing pain in my heart. I didn't want to spoil the moment between Zach and I by mourning Jeremiah at the moment. I don't want to live my life like this, even though it is agony, every minute.
"Well. Like I said, you know how to charm a girl."
Zach pushes the gate to the preacher's house open and allows me to enter. "Here goes nothing." He says sliding in beside me.
"So the question is do I keep my mouth shut so I don't make things awkward?" I ask quickly before Zach knocks. He smiles down at me.
"Well, don't go with not saying something you really feel you need t, but, as much as I love you, I would suggest you try not to get into a debate with him...it could get uncomfortable."
I fake a frown and then smile right before Preacher Wickham answer. He looks as solemn as usual. He wears a dirty and patched up vest and the nicest shirt he must own which is still too small in the sleeves. Nevertheless, he dresses nicer than most anyone in Rouen can brag.
"Miss Black, Mr. Burton. Please, come in." I slowly follow zach into the house and eye the room in which we first enter. it is full of handcrafted furniture and a bits of collectibles his children found.
"You both know why I called for you so lets cut to the chase."
I sit down beside Zach on a low to the ground sofa across fro the Preacher and watch slightly nervously as he paces back and forth trying to light his pipe. After succeeding he sits down and looks intently at both of us.
"You are in a fortunate situation that come the typical age which couples are married, you two have...feelings for each other. Am I correct in that statement?"
I am not sure how to answer and follow Zach's lead by simply nodding.
The preacher smiles slightly then puffs out a gray ploom of smoke. "I know that you both feel now isn't the right time in your life to marry but in our perpetual situation...no one ever feels ready. I want to discuss with you both the responsibilities of marriage. Some of the community has come to me saying they are fearful of the wedded couple you will make. Zachary, you're twenty and Addison, you're nineteen. Its time to grow up a bit."
My eyes narrow and I glance at Zach who is looking at Preacher Wickham in total confusion.
"Excuse me?" Zach questions leaning forward in the seat. "Why is it even their business?"
The preacher sets his pipe aside and leans in. "A lot of people say you two are highly immature. You interact...playfully as they put it."
I let out an exasperated sigh. "Yeah...we're kids. If we didn't have to marry at such a young age maybe that wouldn't be a problem."
Zach places a hand over mine and gently says my name to stop me from rambling on. I hold in my anger and lean back in the seat, avoiding the preacher's gaze.
"I get the feeling," he says "that you, Zachary, are more prepared to be married than Addison."
Zach looks to be forcing composition over himself. "I think that is an unfair statement. I think neither of us are prepared. If Addison seems less prepared than myself it is for obvious reasons which I have already expressed to you. I would appreciate it if you dont point out things mockingly which may come across in a hurtful way."
I smile inwardly and find the strength to look back at the preacher, knowing Zach is wholly on my side. Wickham stares blankly, unsure how to respond for a few seconds, then nods.
"Well, none of it matters anyway. You are both of marrying age and we must make appropriate preparations with this in mind."
For a split second, I dont hear a word the preachers is saying. I can't. The idea of actually getting married is a terrifying idea. How can such a preposterous thing happen? If anyone is crazy enough to think I am even close to capable of being a good wife, they dont know me in the least.
I am glad Zach is actually paying attention because by the time I tune back in on the conversation, they are discussing weather to announce the marriage at the town hall tomorrow night or if Sunday at church would be better.
"I think I would like to announce it at church. Give you two a few days to settle in with the idea before publicizing it."
I nod in agreement, though it makes no sense to me. We have been betrothed since birth and everyone knows this. I don't even know why announcements must be made. It's not like it will come as a surprise to anyone.
"That sounds fine." Zach says rising to stand. The preacher motions for him to sit.
"Before you go, we must also speak of what has been going on in your life recently, Addison."
I avoid his deep and steady gaze and inwardly feel a pain sear through my side. Does he really think am willing to discuss this with him? I look sideways at Zach, who has sat back down and is shaking his head in frustration. For some reason, unknown to me, I hate to see him so upset that I try to calm the mood and carry on a pleasant conversation with the preacher.
"I...appreciate that, Mr. Wickham, but I think I am okay."
"No, no, miss Black, I am truly worried about you as is Mrs. Wickham. We feel that perhaps a bit of...quality time with you may help you to...move on."
I see Zach flinch slightly before looking with a dark kindling fury towards Wickham. "You want to put her through therapy?"
I close my eyes slowly and let out a wispy sigh. Could things get any worse? Why do people find it within their realm of responsibility to nose in on other's business?
"I really don't think that is necessary." I mutter while touching Zach's arm to calm him down. He glances sidelong at me and I can see he really isn't in the mood to carry on with Mr. Wickham. I look back at the preacher who is watching us and looking invested in our interactions.
"I think it is best that we just talk out your feelings before you enter into a relationship."
"I think you're wrong." I answer a bit too quickly. "Look, I really just don't want to do that...and...you really can't make me."
The look on the Preacher's face is nearly priceless though I wish I hadn't said it by the time I had. Zach looks at me with a teasing smile which makes me wonder what is going through his head.
"Well,." The preacher said folding his hands and looking from me to Zach. "I can see you both are going to make this a...difficult engagement, however i think you guys have a...bright future."
I lower my head and feel like talking back, but restrain from all expressions of anger at the moment all in hopes that soon, we would be dismissed.
"Now, Zachary, Addison, I expect you both to be in church this Sunday. I never like announcing marriages where the couple re too proud to arrive at church to receive their congratulations."
I restrain from rolling my eyes and smile kindly. "I'll be there."
"Yeah..." Zach answers standing up almost too quickly. "I'll be there too, Addi, we should get going." I stand up, eager to go and follow Zach to the door.
"Good to see you, kids." He says while closing the door behind us. I can't get far enough away from the old cottage quickly enough. Zach follow rapidly behind me and I can tell he is just as if not more frustrated than myself.
"Bright future my eye." I say when we have put some distance between ourselves and the Preacher. Zach lets out an irritated laugh and catches up to me.
"Don't let our world dictate what our lives hold for us."
I eye him conspicuously. "Well aren't you the philosopher. Were you not just in the same room with me where he told us himself and the rest of the town thinks we need to grow up and then he called us kids right after he wanted me to come to his own personal therapy session so I am ready to get married?"
"I was there." he swipes a tall reed from the base of the pond and begins breaking it into bits and pieces and then scattering them in the wind. "And I think he is full of himself and his nice plaid vest that I swear he will be wearing on sunday. But I don't think we ought to rule out the possibility of a splendid life despite circumstances."
I sigh. "And youre and enthusiast."
"Well someone has got to think the cup is half full around here."
I cannot help but smile and lean into him. "I am not that negative."
"They key word is that." Zach states absently stroking a wisp of hair from my face.
I look up at him with a flicker of a smile teasing the corners of my lips. "Weren't you the one who looked ready to slug the preacher not ten minutes ago?"
Zach shrugs. "I was-I am ready to slug him. He is contentious and old and really gets on my nerves. He is stuck up and I think he believes more in himself and his wise old ways that he does the Lord he claims to praise."
Those were strong words for Zach. Especially since he was a believer. He doesn't like to judge other's and their faith.
"I can't say I disagree." I respond, dipping the tip of my boot in the pond, making ripples travel across the glassy surface. "Maybe we should just flunk out. Skip the announcement. Be a bunch of no shows and leave for barcelona sooner."
Zach paused and looked at me. "About Barcelona. I think we should prolong our travels until Max isn't so consumed in this thing with Kara and I can think of what to do with Pete."
I nod slowly, wondering how to respond. I guess I am not upset by his announcement. I like the idea of taking action, but I feel tired...to tired to do much of anything recently. A few bursts of energy every now and then comes, but I am just as happy siting down resting. "So...how long would that be?"
Zach shrugs. "I am not sure."
"I was hoping we would leave before the wedding so they cannot make us marry now...would we leave before then?"
"I would assume so." He pauses. "...I know how you feel about getting married. But I don't know why you are willing to go to lengths such as running away into something such as what Max and I have been planning to escape it."
I divert my gaze so as not to meet his deep eyes. "My mother was a wonderful woman. She was a great mom to me and Jeremiah," I feel my voice break a bit as I force out my brothers name "and I know she was a wonderful wife." I brush away the tears escaping my eyelids and look up at Zach with a quick smile. "I can't be that." I shake my head and take a step away from him, turning my back away from him so he can't see my tears. "I am not prepared to be that."
"Well neither of us are very equipped. Look at how involved my father has been."
I look back at him over my shoulder. "No...but you grew up at least seeing the dynamics of a family. I've spent too much time alone...dreaming up what I can't explain."
"I have to explain things to myself too. It isn't like my parents talk to me all that much either."
I smile a bit. "Anyway. Um...I was thinking maybe tomorrow we could go fishing. I need more food and I thought you might help me?"
Zach turns ready to go home. "Of course. I'll meet you here?"
I nod. "Yes."
"Hey, Addi, do you care if I bring the boys. they don't have school tomorrow."
"That would be great." I say waving as I turn to go home.
I cant help but wonder where I am walking., but as I stroll along, I abandon the cracking asphalt and muddy street and hear the bustle of the town fade behind me. The meadow jetting out this side of town is beautiful no mater how trampled and misused the earth is. I don't come this way often It jolts too many painful memories. When I was little, mom and dad would bring me out here to run and play without fear of me getting out of sight or falling and getting hurt.
Sometimes, I will wander out here without meaning to and regret it afterwards. I sink down into the brown grass and let my eyes glaze over the expanse. Just a few steps beyond the line of trees that I can see in the distance is the enormous Louire Valley. I don't know from having visited...just from looking at old maps. I always wanted to take an afternoon and wander out there, but something always holds me back. A chill wind creeps along, bending the grass like enormous waves bending across the little meadow and catching in my hair. I close my eyes and allow the breeze to twist around my body, carrying my feelings and thoughts and secrets with it away into the distance.
"Sometimes things happen that we cannot explain, Addi...even I as your father don't have all the answers."
"Why? Why do people do horrible things?"
"Because, not everyone has a heart as pure as yours."
I smile and remember my dad trying to teach my to happily cope with what our life was. would ask questions, sometimes foolish ones, and he would answer best he could while each time trying to weave some wisdom into it. He never wanted to speak negatively wight me. I think he hardly ever spoke harshly to my mother as well. he was so kind...but so strong as well. I suddenly picture Zach in my head for no reason. I guess that is why I love Zach so...he is just like my dad...or in the way of everything I admire.