Sister Elizabeth’s porridge sat in Rachel’s stomach like a brick. She hadn’t slept, knowing today was her turn. The heavy feeling turned to nausea as she and Mary headed out to the perimeter. Stopping by the supply shed, Mary pressed a rifle into her hands, and said: “Remember, it’s you today.” As if Rachel could forget. On the path, she walked faster than usual, trying to ignore the vomit inching up her throat and the weight of the weapon on her back.
The sun broke through the leaves of the canopy above, sprinkling the forest floor with pennies of light. Mary’s long legs and fortitude putting more and more trail between them. The tiny spotlights brought out the honey highlights in her hair. Rachel wanted to tell her how beautiful it was, but Mary would scowl and say such things were of this world. Mary held her skirt up, bunched in her fists as she sped toward the gate. Rachel let her skirt drag on the ground.
Mary stopped just short of the boundary and stood with her hands on her hips. “It’s not bad. She doesn’t even beg or shout anymore.” Mary probably thought she was afraid, none of the girls understood Rachel’s quiet. They thought she was shy, afraid to speak her mind. They were jealous, maybe. Silence was revered in a woman. The quiet wasn’t something Rachel intended it just was, like Isaiah’s pimples, or the way Mary couldn’t digest lactose.
“I hear her!” Mary yanked Rachel’s arm as she dashed toward the gate. Rachel lifted her feet faster, but then slid on a mossy rock, wet her bum landing in damp debris, and lost interest. There was nothing to see, only the Scientist’s face on the other side of the locked gate. At first her dark skin and fuzzy hair had been interesting to look at. The way words fell out of her mouth in clipped tones had tickled Rachel’s ears. It was evidence of a bigger world. Why did she want to come into the farm? There was nothing here: rocks and trees. Maybe the Scientist’s desire, her insistence and her presence at their gate twice every day for months was a sign there was nothing better than here. Rachel’s chest felt hollow at the thought.
The Scientist had been coming since the snow melted. Soon the air would turn cool. Rachel wondered if the Scientist would leave when the snow came again. Rachel’s dull days would become mind-numbingly predictable without the Scientist. Mary elbowed her in the ribs. “Go!” Rachel swallowed hard. Mary had always done the talking. She always knew what to say. She’d read the whole Bible five times and knew more verses by heart than Rachel could count. And she wanted babies, lots of them. Mary wanted children like a woman was supposed to. She vibrated with silent excitement when the Pastor spoke of their impending marriage matches; the idea made Rachel’s mouth taste sour.
Rachel stepped to the gate, the barbed wire inches from her face, the smell of rusty iron in her nose. At first the Scientist had questioned the refusal. She was loud and red-faced. For the last month she hadn’t said anything, only nodding as Mary told her to go away, turning her back on the rifle clad youth to go somewhere else. Rachel wondered where that somewhere else could be. She’d never been outside the farm. She cleared her throat. She had so many questions. “I’m sorry. You may not come in.”
The Scientist’s eyebrows rose. She wrapped her brown fingers around the wire. No rings. Rachel wondered if she had children. Some part of Rachel hoped she didn’t.
“Please,” she said. It was just a whisper.
Rachel was paralyzed as her eyes met the older woman’s; forbidden questions welling in her mouth. Mary pulled on her blouse, sighing, “They’re going to be mad if we make them late.” Rachel watched the Scientist over her shoulder as she shuffled the twenty yards to the gate tower.
“You’re not supposed to talk to her that much,” Josh said. She smiled at him. Relief spilled through her veins. She hadn’t exposed her doubt. She’d held it inside. She was safe. The boys shook their heads as they left for the men’s meal service. She looked out the window.
“I wouldn’t mind if Pastor matched me with Josh.”
Rachel didn’t respond. The way the Scientist said ‘please’ was stuck in her head. There was desperation there, a need Rachel understood. The Scientist wanted to see their rock, the reason this farm existed. The giant boulder was proof of Noah’s flood, and the promises of the Bible. The rock meant they were special. The rock they wouldn’t let anyone else see. But why would the Scientist care?
“Who do you want to be paired with?” Mary asked, her voice husky with conspiracy.
Her excitement exhausted Rachel. After Mary wouldn’t stop looking at her, eyebrows raised, Rachel finally said: “I don’t want to be married.”
“Is this about your Dad? I heard-”
“Do you think after Jacob toiled for fourteen years to marry Rachel he would just watch her waste away? Watch her skin collapse and her bones eat themselves? Would he put her in the backyard with an afghan over her legs when he couldn’t listen to her weep anymore? Would he be satisfied just to pray?”
“Does your Father look at your Mother the way you imagine Boaz watched Ruth gleaning in his field?”
Mary’s eyes narrowed, two creases appearing between her eyebrows.
“There’s more than this, Mary.”
“I’ll do all the talking when she comes back this afternoon,” Mary said before sliding into sullen silence. Two hours later they were relieved by another team of guards so they could go eat women’s lunch. ‘Leftover Lunch’ Rachel called it, and Mary giggled when she wasn’t angry.
Entering the dining hall, they parted to sit with their families. Mary had many sisters; the girls and their mother took up an entire table. Rachel and her mother sat with the widows and the childless women. “Hi Mama,” Rachel said, getting to work. She tied the bib around her mother’s neck, taking care not to pull her hair. Serving her mother first, she scooped a portion much larger than she would take for herself, even though her mother would not even eat half. She cut the meat into bite size squares and placed them in her mother’s mouth. Rachel shoveled food into her own face while her mother slowly chewed.
It wasn’t always like this. When Rachel was young, her mother would take her to the edge of the river and dip Rachel’s toes in the freezing water. They would laugh at their reflections, and then collapse together on piles of pine needles at the edge of the forest, watching the black snakes sun themselves. Then her mother became tired: too tired to go outside, and much too tired to go to the river. The doctor came, said she needed sunshine and prayer. Then her joints ached, and swelled until her wrists were oranges and her knees grapefruit. They weren’t praying enough. When the cough and the chest pain, the shortness of breath confined her to her bed, Rachel realized it had nothing to do with prayer. Her father had yet to come to this understanding. He still dripped embarrassed apologies as he nightly called the doctor over to do something about his screaming wife, beating on her hips and knees with her swollen fists.
Rachel was wiping her mother’s chin when Widow Allen pressed a package into her hand. “For your sweet Mama.” Rachel’s brows came together as she looked at the rich amber squares in her palm. “It’s caramel, I made. No one knows…” Her eyes widened. Sugar was treasured on the farm, treats were few and far between.
“Your secret is safe with me,” Rachel replied. Widow Allen was a nice woman. Rachel appreciated her intentions, but one didn’t give caramel to a woman who didn’t want to chew. She slid the candies into her pocket, kissed her mother goodbye and headed back to the supply shed.
Mary was still prickly. The Scientist’s arrival tugged at Rachel’s every thought. The Scientist wouldn’t say ‘please’ to Mary. Rachel stood next to her friend at the tower window, pressed her shoulder into the other girl’s shoulder and held out her hand. Four beautiful caramels glowed in the gloom of the tower room. “I’m sorry,” Rachel said.
Mary’s eyes glowed. “Oh my! Where did you get these?” Mary consumed the caramel, barely pausing to breathe. “I just don’t want to get in trouble. I don’t want Pastor to even think I would want to talk to her. Can you imagine who he would pair me with if he thought I was troublemaking?”
Rachel shook her head and sat down on the wooden bench under the window. Mary spoke at length about weddings and how she was going to wear her mother’s dress, and how yes, her mother was fat now but she hadn’t been when she got married. Rachel was wondering how long it was going to take, watching Mary’s face closely for a reaction. After twenty minutes she saw a pinch of concern in Mary’s brow. At thirty minutes she watched her friend shift uncomfortably in her seat.
“Rachel, where did you get those molasses candies?”
“The caramel? From Widow Allen. She made them for my mom, but she can’t eat them. I thought you would enjoy them.”
“Caramel! She makes those with milk. You know I can’t…Oh, no. I have to go. You can’t tell anyone I left, but if I don’t go… When our relief gets here tell them I’m checking out the perimeter…” Mary was already running down the stairs then crashing through the woods.
Rachel stood at the gate waiting, her rabbit heart racing in her chest. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do. Maybe she just needed to know what was out there; needed to know why the Scientist wanted in. She heard the low rumble of the jeep’s engine approaching. She watched the Scientist park and walk to the gate. She smiled when a look of surprise crossed the woman’s face.
“You’re alone,” she said, eyes bright. She had a dimple in her left cheek.
“Why do you keep coming here?”
“I want to see your rock.”
“It’s an erratic boulder. It’s different from everything else around it-”
Rachel was disappointed. “I know. It’s proof of the flood-“
“Proof of the flood? Like Noah and the ark?” the Scientist laughed. “Oh no, it’s not that at all. It’s proof of glacial migration, of the ice age, and how the earth is four and a half billion years old.”
Rachel felt a twinge, a lightness in her chest. The same feeling when she answered a Bible trivia question correctly in Sister Deborah’s class. When she could tell the teacher thought she wasn’t paying attention and really wanted her to be wrong.
“Quick!” Rachel whispered, opening the gate. “My partner is sick. You have about two hours before our replacements show up.”
The Scientist stood wide eyed and unmoving on the other side of the gate.
Rachel grabbed the Scientist’s arm and pulled her through. “This way.” She ran down the path to the rock, the only sound the blood rushing in her ears and the Scientist’s boots tripping over roots and slipping on pine needles. Rachel stopped at the edge of the small clearing, the hole in the dense leafy canopy allowing the sun to illuminate the boulder in the center. Dark grey with a pale vein running through, the rock was the size of a large car and sparkled when the light hit it just right. There was an unspoken rule among them to not come here, but whenever Rachel didn’t want to be bothered, she found herself in the clearing. In the presence of the boulder a reverent hush hummed through her. It stilled her soul. The feeling she longed for while kneeling in chapel, but never felt. The breeze fluttered leaves in the trees surrounding, but in the clearing the air was still on Rachel’s damp forehead.
“Amazing!” The Scientist said. Her continued motionlessness made Rachel painfully aware of their shortage of time.
“Remember, two hours. I have to go back to the gate in case anyone comes. Two hours.” She felt ridiculous lecturing an elder about speed and timeliness. She turned to leave.
“Wait.” The woman was reaching in her pocket, irritating Rachel with the wasted time. “Here,” the Scientist said pulling out a small white card. “I’ll be fast, I promise, but if you get in trouble, this is my card.”
Rachel laughed while she took the card. She could smell the scent of the other woman on the paper: spring flowers, and oranges. Before Rachel’s mother was sick she’d make sachets out of lavender she grew behind the house. Rachel remembered their spicy scent in her undershirts. “If I get in trouble your card won’t help me.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Do you know why these people are here?”
“William Jamison founded the church in –“
“Yeah, yeah. That’s how they got here, but do you know why?”
The Scientist tipped her head to the side.
“They want to live forever. They are betting this life there is another eternal one later. A better life, a nicer one with gold streets, that they bought with this,” she turned a circle, arms out. “Funny thing, gambling is one of the ways you get kicked out of here.”
“Do you want to get kicked out?”
“Are you afraid of death?”
The Scientist didn’t blink. “Isn’t everyone?”
“Ending seems natural to me, Plants die, animals die.”
She turned away again, unsure she could vocalize her greatest fear. Three steps away she looked over her shoulder at the Scientist, still watching, still waiting, cleared her throat and said:
“What if this is the only life we get?”
Rachel watched the Scientist carefully. Perhaps the answer to Rachel’s question could be found on the woman’s face. But the Scientist just nodded and half smiled. Rachel couldn’t help but feel like maybe the question wasn’t hers alone. She waited to see if the Scientist would say something, anything. She waited to have the secrets of the universe revealed. But instead the Scientist turned to the rock. Rachel ran.
Leaves, moss and pine needles flew in her wake. Her heart pounded in her ears, every moment a century, imagining the whole time the entirety of the community waiting for her at the gate. Waiting to accuse and exile. Everyone she knew holding their breath and watching the woods for her; everyone but her mother who at this time of day would be too weak to leave her bed. So convinced of her fate, Rachel was confused when she reached the gate alone. She circled the area looking for spies, for lurkers, but found nothing but squirrels and song birds. Rachel climbed the tower stairs and crawled across the floor exhausted.
“You’re bad at this,” Josh said, shaking her shoulder. Everything was fuzzy as Rachel woke. There was a wet mark where her mouth had been pressed against the floor boards. “You should ask to be reassigned.”
She didn’t answer, but stumbled down the steps and headed home. Halfway to the cabin she realized she didn’t know if the Scientist had gotten away. She should have stalled Josh and Isaiah from their patrols. She stopped in the middle of the trail. She should go check the rock. She took ten steps and stopped. But if she was found there with the Scientist it would be worse.
Rachel went home. The house felt like a cave, cool and damp. He’d let the fire go out. She stacked new logs on top and lit the match. She put on a pair of her father’s pants under her skirt. She filled the pockets with a folding knife, a length of string and some dried fruit. She put a wool sweater and her boots next to the door. She tucked a handful of matches wrapped in waxed paper in the toe of her boot just in case. She didn’t know what they would let her take. She climbed into bed next to her mother and lay her head on her mother’s shoulder. Rachel’s mother’s heart sounded like a bird’s through the paper wall of her chest. Her breathing was like the slurping of soup.
“I don’t want to leave you, Mama.” She said to the blue edged eyelids. They flickered in response. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t know what I was doing. I did. But I didn’t think I’d be this sad to leave.” Her mother’s body was cold despite the summer day and she trembled constantly. Every time Rachel dozed off a tremor shook her awake, reminding her they were coming. She needed to be ready. She dozed again only to be awakened by a tapping on her cheek. She opened her eyes to find her mother’s fingers on her face.
“What is it, Mama. What do you need? The outhouse?” She got out of bed and was reaching for her boots when her mother raised her arm and pointed with gnarled, purple fingers at the trunk that contained her clothes. “Are you cold? Do you need a sweater? Socks? Another blanket?” Her mother kept pointing. Rachel went over to the trunk and opened it. She’d opened it a thousand times in her life; the family’s laundry and cleaning having fallen to her since her mother’s illness. “I don’t know what you want, Mama.” Rachel pulled her fingers through her hair and sighed.
She watched the muscles in her mother’s throat stretch and bob. The labor of speaking was painful to watch. “Bottom,” her mother whispered. “Picture.” Rachel dug through the trunk until she found a framed photo of a young woman and a baby. Her fingers gripped the frame. It was her mother and her. She didn’t know this existed. Photos were not allowed; they encouraged vanity. “Open,” her mother said. Rachel pried the back open and found four one hundred dollar bills. This too wasn’t allowed. Only the important men were allowed to keep money. It was a tie to the outside that needed to be broken. It was dangerous. It could draw thieves from the outside into their farm. “Take,” her mother said. Tears dripped down Rachel’s face as she looked into her mother’s half closed eyes.
“Thank you” she whispered tucking the money and the picture into her bra and putting the frame back at the bottom of the trunk. She lay back down. “When they come, Mama. I’m going to make you proud.” She closed her eyes but couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t leave her mother. When they came for her she would beg. She wasn’t proud. She would beg for them to let her stay and care for her mother. It wouldn’t be long. She’d leave quietly after. She would promise to be good. She watched the sky turn from cerulean to cobalt and from cobalt to azure, and waited.
She woke with a start when the front door opened, convinced it was the mob coming to grab her, but it was only her father home from dinner and evening chapel. She slipped out of bed and tucked her mother in tight.
“Make some tea,” he said.
She put on the kettle and set out his cup. She measured the leaves into the strainer and waited for the boil. He sat in a chair by the fire. She made his tea and handed it to him. He took it and sipped. She sat on the hearth and waited. Waited for them to come. Waited to be spoken to. She wondered if anything interesting happened, like a Scientist was found on the property, if he would even tell her.
“She seemed in less pain today,” Rachel said eventually. He grunted. “I think maybe the willow bark tea I made is helping.”
“She needs prayer. You should be praying. You should be making sure your soul is clean and not this tree nonsense. The doctor said so. There is nothing else we can do.”
“What is there to lose? Why not try everything. Willow tea costs nothing.”
“Do you doubt the doctor? Doubt the pastor, Rachel?”
She pressed her lips firmly together. The honest answer to that question would have him hauling her by the arm to the Pastor’s house for hours of instruction. At least then she wouldn’t be waiting here for someone to come for her. She opened her mouth to speak.
“Go to bed, Rachel.”
She closed her mouth and stood. She kissed her mother on the forehead and went to her room. She closed the door and sat on her bed waiting. Every noise sent her heart racing. Raccoons on the roof nearly caused her to lose bowel control. But the sky out her window lightened, and the birds started singing, and no one came.
She thought if she made it to morning she’d be safe. She’d expected to stop sweating, for her hands to be still and her heartbeat to return to normal. She’d expected relief. Instead anger boiled in her belly. Disappointment screamed in her ear. She’d bought in to the omniscience of the pastor, the strength of the faith. She’d convinced herself they knew her sin, but a mere girl had outsmarted them. They were impotent men, sheep, and she’d let them pen her in.
Rachel tiptoed into her parent’s bedroom and knelt on the floor at her mother’s side. Rachel brushed her mother’s bangs to the side and kissed her forehead. Her mother’s big brown eyes opened. Her hand reached for Rachel’s face and Rachel moved closer so her mother’s arthritic fingers could cup her cheek. “Go,” her mother said.
Pulling on her boots and sweater, Rachel eased out the front door and marched through the early morning toward the gate. Josh was already there, cleaning his rifle.
“Let me out.”
“You’re not allowed.”
“I let the Scientist in yesterday.”
He looked at her, eyes wide and brows raised. They stood there as minutes passed. He blinked repeatedly. He took the key from the peg inside the tower and turned it in the lock.
“You can’t come back,” he said.
She smiled and walked away.
Rachel walked into the icy wind, her long denim skirt plastered to her legs; freezing gusts of air blew between the buildings and surprised her at every crosswalk. She stepped over the curb and into the street, narrowly avoiding flattening by a car turning right. Her eyes searched the numbers above the doors. Her fingers wrapped around the card in her pocket, so worn and folded it was barely legible, but she knew the address by heart. Finding the right number she walked toward it, the door slid open and Rachel stopped short. She stared, wide eyed and open mouthed as the warm air from inside the building tickled her nose. Heart hammering in her chest, she couldn’t make her legs move. If doors could open themselves, what else might be possible?
Meagan Lucas’ work can be found in a variety of literary journals including: Four Ties Lit Review, The Santa Fe Writers Project and The Penmen Review. Her story “Kittens” is the 2017 Winner of the Scythe Prize for Fiction. Raised on a small island in Northern Ontario, Meagan now lives in Asheville, NC with her husband and their two children. She teaches college freshmen the joy and pain of writing. Family life, the grey space between right and wrong, and the dark underbelly of the American Dream figure prominently in her work. Read more at www.meaganlucas.com.