Quill's eyes glitter in the darkness, and I hold his gaze longer than is strictly polite. My breath labors beneath the weight of great relief and horrible panic. There are secrets in this place, secrets that leave animals mutilated and strong men like John Quill afraid.
I pull my shawl tighter around my shoulders, shivering.
Seeing this, Quill makes an impatient noise and casts his gaze about us. "Stay there. Don't move."
His step is hurried, and a square of light falls on the ground as he opens the door. I hear his voice, muffled by the walls between us, and someone else responding. He returns but a moment later.
"Here." He holds out a coat.
I slip my arms into it. It's heavy, and smells of him. Though, I'm not certain when I’d memorized his smell.
"Ross will see her home, once she's calmed down. I'll take you back to the dwelling house. I don't want to see you out at night, again."
I walk with him, my gait intentionally slow. "You don't want to see me, again?"
"Not out here, at night," he says, and I feel there is an important omission I cannot let pass.
I stop completely, and he leaves me behind a few steps. I don’t move to catch up. "But you do want to see me."
He turns and stalks toward me, until I am sorely tempted to take a step back. "Do you know what would happen if your friend really did run off?"
"You said she wouldn't live through the night," I remind him. "Why? Because of a mountain lion attacking cows and chickens?"
He exhales slowly, as though gathering his patience. "You're to tell no one this, do you understand? If I hear it from anyone, I'll know it came from you."
"And what will you do?" I know he won't hurt me, not physically. But there are plenty of ways to hurt someone without lifting a finger.
"I'll tell your cousin."
He speaks as though he knows how I feel about my cousin. Is my dislike of Benjamin that obvious?
Even if Quill doesn't know, if he's playing me on an assumption, I can't risk it. Besides, to have Quill trust me with a secret is a strangely thrilling thing. "I won't tell anyone. You have my word."
"For all the good your word is." He hesitates; perhaps he regrets that unkind remark, but it's fair enough. "David, one of the other hired men, he found a man in the woods behind his house. Torn up, just like the animals here. Whatever's killing the livestock...they aren't afraid of people. They're hunting them. Ross has a gun, but he's not a good shot. If those things attacked them, they wouldn't have a chance."
"Things?" I pull the coat tighter around me. "So it's not a mountain lion, like the drunk said."
"Don't call him that," Quill snaps. "But no, it's not a mountain lion. Do as you're told, and stay inside!"
We continue on our way, him leading angrily, me dragging my feet to deliberately annoy him. "I think it is a mountain lion."
"I don't care what you think."
He can't put me off that easily. "I think you don't want Ross to take Iris away because the rest of you will get in trouble."
"That's true," he replies. "But it doesn't make the rest untrue."
"That's selfish." I stop again and raise my voice. I am keenly aware of the consequences, should we be discovered, but this is somehow eclipsed by the burning anger I feel toward Quill, for no reason I can readily name.
John Quill is nothing to me. He's a man I've spoken to a few times, and who I've built up in my head as some kind of kindred spirit. I don't know him. And yet, I feel this strange antagonism toward him. I want him to be angry at me. No; I want him to feel something toward me. Anger seems the shortest route to that goal.
He stops and turns, waiting for something. For me to finish my tirade against him? I can't remember where exactly I'd meant to go with the words I'd spoken, so I scramble to come up with something. "I think you're afraid that if Iris leaves with that man, you'll all be sent away. Otherwise, why not help them? They want to be together. They're..."
I want to say they are in love, but I haven't the faintest notion. Perhaps Iris just sees Ross as a means to leave the commune. I don't know if she's happy, or what she feels toward him.
"I'm not afraid of being dismissed," Quill says, his voice surprisingly even in the face of my outburst. "I'm afraid of what'll happen to the people like you when the hired men are sent off. But I'd find work elsewhere."
His rational calm sends a chill of foreboding up my spine. "What do you mean?"
He comes toward me slowly, as though we have all the time in the world to stand in the open and be caught out here, in the night, together. "Have you noticed that the women here outnumber the men?"
Surely, that can't be right. I search my memory. There is a deficit on the men's side of the dining hall, but not by much. I think of the types of men who live and work here. While the women in the community cover a wide range of ages, the men are either elderly, or becoming so. There are boys, plenty of boys, yet none between. I think of Iris's difficulty in leaving, and my anger burns my veins. Benjamin is clearly unconcerned with keeping the young men from going. The young women, however...
Quill stands so close to me, now, I swear I can feel the heat from his body in the space between us. "The men here are all either boys, too young to be of any practical help, or old men who have outlived their usefulness. Your cousin is stupid enough that he’d fire all the hired help if Ross took that girl away. You’d make it through the winter, but it wouldn’t be easy. We’re trying to help you fools!”
I open my mouth to respond.
"You think it's selfish of us to dissuade your friend?” he went on. “Ross, doesn't have the sense to feed her and shelter her. He doesn't know anything about the world, and neither does that girl. They think they're in love because they fumbled with each other a time or two. Here, everything is forbidden and exciting. Out there, they'll have to work and fight to stay alive, to keep a roof over their heads. That love won't last the winter. She's better off here."
"Maybe it's not up to you to decide what's best for her," I mutter, but my heart isn't in the argument anymore. What I don't know about John Quill far outweighs what I know of him. He speaks with a depth of bitter experience I can't begin to fathom, one that defies his age. I don't wish to know the extent of it. The mystery of him distracts me from the sadness and uncertainty I feel all around me. Knowing his past will make him just another person, like Iris or Sister Anne; a fixture in the miserable life to which I’ve been confined.
I follow him meekly back to the dwelling house, shrug off his coat, and hand it back to him.
"You tell your friend to stay indoors at night," he orders. "You do the same."
I stand in the doorway and watch him go, as far as the darkness will let me.
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...