Chapter 20.

680 22 9

Everyone  returns to the dwelling house in a rush; they go upstairs and dress as the meeting house bell rings furiously. If I believed in God, I would think he had spared me from discovery.

It isn't difficult to fall into the scattering panic. I make my way to the white clapboard building with everyone else. When I stagger through the door, I stop hard; Quill stands with Pete, and Benjamin. Another man, the one I'd seen running across the field, sits on the floor, his head bowed. His clothes are filthy and torn, the sleeve of his shirt stained with fresh red blood.

I try, and fail, to keep my gaze from lingering on Quill. I know he senses me there, though he doesn't look at me. His hand clenches and unclenches at his side, his jaw takes on a hard set.

Benjamin turns to me, and I look sharply away from Quill.

"Evie!" He makes his way to me and takes my hands in his. "I have been inattentive. I see my folly, now."

I inwardly recoil from his touch but squeeze his hands. "I don't hold it against you. I know that you're working tirelessly to protect us, here. I won't allow myself to be a distraction."

Uncertainty dulls his eyes, but not the smile that refuses to reach them. He's no stranger to this kind of manipulation, but he can't bring himself to believe that I am clever enough or brave enough to use it against him. He'll have to work out, in his own time, whether my seeming concern is genuine, or a rejection.

It's both. I wish him luck figuring that out.

A commotion of murmurs at the door captures his attention, and, thankfully, he releases me. My eyes cut to Quill, to find him watching.

Eldress Jane has arrived, born into the meeting house in a makeshift litter: her rocking chair, carried by four men, though her slight weight should only require the strength of one. She looks small, swaddled in her blankets, and so much older than she did during the summer months, when we still worked the garden.

The Shakers surge forward, Benjamin at the head of them. Raised voice demand answers, prayers, signs. All assurances I doubt even Eldress Jane could give them. The men position her chair at the front of the room, where she used to preach almost nightly. Only now that she is here do I realize how long she's been hidden away.

"Silence," Benjamin calls, but no one heeds his words. Only when Eldress Jane stands, with difficulty, does the panicked crowd fall quiet.

She hobbles over to the injured man on the floor, every step seeming a great effort. "If we'll all sit down, then."

Even Quill and Pete do as she instructs, moving to the low bench beneath the window, apart from the rest of us.

"What is your name, young man?" she asks the stranger.

He lifts his head, showing sallow skin and hollow eyes. "Vernon Dale. From over the mountain in Bannock."

"Vernon Dale," Eldress Jane repeats, her toothless mouth working. "Your father...he was Vern Dale, too."

"Yes ma'am," Dale agrees. "But he's been gone twenty-six years, now."

"Better for him, considering, heh?" Eldress Jane cranes her neck and looks to Benjamin. "Nobody's tended him, yet?"

"He wouldn't let us," Pete says, his voice dying out sheepishly.

A bug could have spoken, and Benjamin would look less disgusted. He composes his expression, but not before I catch the flash of his curled upper lip. "We did try–"

The AfflictedWhere stories live. Discover now