The door of the hired men's house is open, but this late in the evening, it's far lighter outside than in. That's what I tell myself, to rationalize my fear of going inside. The truth is, it's still a forbidden space, and I'm afraid to enter. I wait outdoors instead, with nowhere to sit or even lean. Spiders, great, gray things with abdomens that look tight and ready to burst, spin their webs against the clapboard. I'd take my chances with another dead man rather than face one of those terrible creatures.
I regret that thought the moment it enters my mind. If Ross rose from his grave once, why can't he do it again? I pace in front of the open door, waiting, every moment stretching by with some sound to frighten me, some imaginary change in the air that chills me.
What if Benjamin dismissed Quill? Surely, he would've come here to collect his things? No one, not even John Quill, is so mysterious as to not have a single earthly possession.
Now, the open door is tantalizing. Quill lives just over that threshold. I've wanted answers about him for so long, yet I'm hesitating on the precipice of discovery? Though I know I shouldn't dare, I pass beneath the lintel and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. A lamp hangs beside the door, a single matchstick pushed through its looped handle. I light the wick with trembling hands and replace the glass chimney, keeping the flame low as I move through the dimness of one room to the next.
The hired men's house is small, like a regular family home. On the lower level there's a kitchen with a wood stove and a table, a bedroom with two beds, one stripped bare - that was Ross's, I suppose - and at the back, another door to the outside and a pair of boots set neatly against the wall. A staircase leads up to a loft, and I take each step timidly, afraid that one creak will alert the entire commune to my presence in such sinful territory.
The moment my feet reach the top step, I know who sleeps in the narrow bed below the loft's only window, who uses the comb and razor on the washstand. I know from his scent, the smell of earth and wood shavings and sunlight. I didn't realize how aware of him I've truly become. A heavy coat hangs beside the door, the same he wrapped around my shoulders the night I followed Iris. The air was chilly that night, but not so cold as to require an overcoat, and my face flushes. Quill gave it to me to cover my nightdress, not to keep me warm. Was he embarrassed to catch me in that state?
I place the lamp on the small dresser so I can further examine the space. I pick up the razor and comb on the washstand and turn them carefully in my hands. Atop the dresser, there is a spare belt coiled neatly around its plain silver buckle, and a silver pocket watch. I am afraid to touch anything too firmly, as though my presence might imprint upon it.
Of the few objects Quill owns, none is more mysterious than the blue glass bottle on the dresser. There's a cork in the neck despite the fact that it's empty. I pull the crude stopper and lift it to my nose. The ghosts of lilacs greet me. It is, or was, a woman's perfume.
I hastily put the bottle back into its place, and wipe my hands on my skirt. I don't like the thought of some other woman's perfume in John Quill's room. I feel ridiculous and small. I shouldn't be here, and I've presumed too much about his feelings toward me.
The floorboards alert me to the presence of another body in the room. I turn slowly, unable to look John Quill in the eyes.
"What are you doing here, Evie?" There's no admonishment in his tone, but he sounds weary and not at all pleased to see me.
I steal a glance at his face, stony and impassive as he awaits an answer. His hands are clean, but his shirtsleeves are still stained with blood, brown flecks of it splashed across his chest. The top two buttons of his shirt are undone, and I see a hint of dark hair at the base of his wide neck.
YOU ARE READING
After her father’s death and her mother’s hasty remarriage, Evelyn Whitney is handed over to the Shaker commune of Bannock, New York, into a life she has little chance of escaping. When the dead become monsters and community loyalties fracture, Evel...