Chapter 23.

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Life returns to normal in a matter of days, though it is a truncated type of normal. At first, it seems easy; fewer people to feed, fewer clothes to launder. But there are also fewer Shakers left to do those tasks, and the hopes of hiring more men are scarce. No one passes down our road or comes to surrender their children anymore. We work during the day and do what we can, come inside at dusk and stay locked away until morning. Yet, no one acknowledges the danger aloud.

Fewer people also means it's easier for Benjamin to know where I go, so my meetings with Quill have been brief. A few words here, a brush of our hands there, and cautious glances. He knows I'm afraid, I know he's afraid, but we can't comfort each other.

I have never felt so helpless.

Laundry is my least favorite task of the week. After what happened to Iris, the women are sympathetic to my desire to stay outside and hang clothes to dry, rather than work around the very water that scalded me. I pretend to be afraid, so I don't have to pass that horrible spot, where I watched Iris die, where Quill held her dead body in his arms.

It left us both with matching scars across our hands and minds.

As I pin up a corner of a bed sheet, movement catches my eye. The cheerful midday sun illuminates the shape of a man through the linen. The figure grows larger; my heart catches in my throat, and I look wildly around. I want to rip the sheet down, but I fear what I might see on the other side. My mind is all rotting flesh and snarling teeth, and the thump-drag of Ross's dead feet as he pursued me.

The fabric moves aside and I take a step back, almost falling. It's Quill, not one of the creatures, who catches me.

"You frightened me!" I whisper, angry and embarrassed.

He shows me a rare smile. "I didn't mean to. I thought if you were someone else, I could just use the excuse that I was patrolling."

"And are you?" I turn back to my work. The laundry hanging from the lines isn't enough of a barrier from prying eyes.

"I am. When the dinner bell rings, men on this watch will be relieved until dark." The hollows below his eyes show plainly how little sleep he and the rest of the men of the commune got lately. All of them who aren't old or infirm were pressed into service after the rest of the Shakers departed.

"Any sign of the others?" I ask, the words struggling to pass through my throat. The thought of what might have happened to the defectors weighs heavily upon us all, though no one dares to voice our fear.

Quill shakes his head. "Saw one last night. Wasn't one of ours."

"Where did you see it?"

His gaze falls to my throat, where I feel my pulse beating hard. He meets my eyes again, and I know whatever he says next will be a lie.

"Out in the back pasture." He looks in that direction. "Never got past the inside fence."

Lie.

"I wish you hadn't said that," I whisper, numb with my own fear.

"Why?"

"Because I know that you didn't see it in the back pasture. And now I know it got through the inside fence."

"Evie." He shakes his head. "I don't know how to lie to you so that you'll believe it."

"Then don't." It isn't that difficult a concept or shouldn't be. "They're coming back, aren't they?"

A moment passes where I feel his indecision as keenly as though I'm about to step off a cliff. His throat tightens as he swallows. "More than likely. Fred tried the post office a couple days ago. Whole town was shuttered up. We've seen smoke on the mountain, so we know somebody's up there. But anybody from town is dead or left or..."

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