Authors: Lily Cahill
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales, are entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 Nameless Shameless Women, LLC.
All rights reserved.
“These people are not natural.”
Ruth cast her eyes toward the floor, hiding behind the curtain of her hair and shrugging deeper into her sweater. The room was sweltering with the combination of summer heat, poor ventilation, and an unusual amount of bodies, but she did not dare remove her bulky cardigan. It stayed firmly over her shoulders, buttoned to her throat as if to say nope, no sinners here.
“It is easy to be weak, in times like this,” her father continued, looking out into the crowd of parishioners. There were twice as many as usual, nearly forty people crammed into the little shack he’d built on the edge of Schmidt Park twenty years ago. In all that time since he’d started the church, attendance had stayed low. People liked to laugh at mad Preacher Baker who believed demons walked the earth, trying to tempt the good toward sin.
Or, they had. That was before the fight—before the property damage, the scorched earth. Before part of the town’s youth had revealed they could do the kind of extraordinary and terrifying things that seemed better suited for stories than real life.
The truth was not a fairy tale. It was closer to a nightmare. Now the sweaty bodies were packed in, and Ruth’s father crowed each night over the dinner table about his plans for expansion. There was a certain kind of power, Ruth thought, in being the one to say things people wanted to hear.
“Do you remember Eve, children? She took a bite of the forbidden fruit, which had been justly banned by God. She couldn’t see the harm, and for her folly she was cast out of Eden.” Edward Baker took a moment to dab at his brow with a handkerchief before tucking it back into the pocket of his suit.
Ruth watched him closely. She was a reflection of him, he liked to remind her, so every Sunday she sat ramrod straight, eyes ahead, clearly reverent. She’d even given up her front row seat two weeks ago so one of the elderly attendees could have her spot. She’d glowed under her father’s approving glance for hours afterward.
“I know it’s difficult. I know how easy it is to say, ‘but I’ve known these children their whole lives!’” He shook his head, suddenly grim. He wasn’t a handsome man, with his mouse-brown hair and large, flat nose, but there was something commanding about his presence. “These are not the people you knew. You saw what they’ve done to our town, done to us. I am afraid for each and every person in this room. I am afraid for the righteous because we are surrounded by the wicked, the sinners, the demons.”
Murmurs from the crowd. Arnold Johnson, sitting two rows ahead of Ruth and apparently incapable of whispering, said, “I always knew something wasn’t right with that Murphy girl, even besides being a Murphy.”
The people around him nodded solemnly.
“Much like that apple in the garden of Eden, these people should not be here among us. Their so-called gifts are something that we as humans were never meant to understand. We must not go the way of Eve. We must resist sin and cast them out!”
There was another rise in conversation. Ruth discretely fanned her face with the church bulletin she’d written out by hand the day before. She had written for hours, until her hand had cramped and her neat script had turned stilted and jagged, and there still weren’t enough programs to go around. The air in the room was moist and close from the breath of forty people talking at once. She fanned herself harder, but it did not seem to help. It was so hot. She felt as though she would never cool down.
Edward leaned across the pulpit, his small, compact body vibrating with the force of his belief. “I beseech you: Do not be weak. Do not give into temptation.” He formed a fist and banged it against the wood. Ruth flinched. “The people we have here are not the children you have always known. They are demons hiding in the skin of those poor souls. To treat them any differently is to do a disservice to the memory of those you knew.”
The room was silent. Forty pairs of eyes stared forward, and Ruth tightened her grip on the sleeves of her sweater. Sweat beaded on the back of her neck. She felt as though she was burning from the inside out.
“Let us pray,” Edward said. He bowed his head, and his devout audience follow his example. He began, “Oh Heavenly Father ….”
Ruth promptly tuned him out. She folded her hands and brought them to her lips.
“Merciful God, please, please, please,” she prayed. “Please stop me from having these abilities. I’ll do anything. I’ll be as good and kind and patient as I can possibly be, but please save me from this.”
The next day, Ruth woke at dawn. She threw back her blanket and looked down at herself, relief washing over her. Everything looked as it had the night before; her same short legs, sticking out of the bottom of the same nightgown she’d worn since she was twelve, when she’d shot up to five feet tall and then had never grown again. There were her same arms, pale from all the time they had recently spent stuck in sweaters, even in the hottest part of the year.
She got out of bed and stretched. She felt just as she had when she went to bed the night before. Some small part of her dared to hope that God had answered her prayers.
With that in mind, Ruth went to the trunk at the end of her bed. Inside was every piece of clothing she owned, stitched from the patterns her father deemed “acceptable.” She pulled out her favorite, a long, pale blue dress.
It was not anything special. Ruth was realistic enough to know that no other girl in town would look twice at it, if it were for sale. It was floor-length and nothing like the fashionable cuts they all seemed to favor. Still, it was not completely shapeless, and in her most private moments, Ruth thought that the color was good for the tone of her skin. She slipped the dress on over her head, doing up the row of buttons in front, before she remembered the problem with this particular outfit, the reason she’d avoided wearing it all summer: her forearms were showing.
It was just her luck. Her father had no rules forbidding bare arms, and she ended up having to wear cardigans in July, anyway. Her father would notice her arms, and he’d have questions Ruth wasn’t prepared to answer.
Ruth gnawed at her lip and then grabbed the same sweater she’d worn to church the day before. It was too hot, but it would have to do. She covered up carefully, ran a brush through her long hair, and then checked her watch. She only had two minutes to spare before he would expect her to be ready, so she stepped into her shoes and ran out the house, pausing in front of their small trailer.
Her father was already there. She immediately dropped her eyes to the ground.
“You’re nearly late,” Edward said, eyes on his own watch. It was the grandest thing he owned, a relic his father had gotten during the first World War. He’d carried it with him during battle, and then brought it home for Edward. Ruth suspected the fact she had not been born a boy to whom her father could pass along this precious family keepsake was one of the most disappointing things about her.
“I’m sorry,” she answered, the words automatic on her tongue. She’d learned long ago that apologizing was easier than arguing.
Edward did not acknowledge her reply, merely turned and started to head east, toward the bridge. She trailed five steps behind him, eyes on her feet, silent.
Their weekly trip to town to gather supplies was something Ruth anticipated just as much as she dreaded. Six days a week moving between their small trailer and the church—little more than a wood shack, if she were being honest—was enough to make the walk to the other side of Independence Falls seem like a vacation. Her father’s beat up old junker had been a casualty of the fight in town, and so they were stuck walking until it was fixed. It made carrying things home more difficult, but Edward had been helping out more with that, lately. Even if it was only because she walked too slowly for his liking, she appreciated the aid.
She liked to go to the general store, to see the crowds moving in and out of the theater or the car hop or the diner. Everyone was so loud and talkative and lively. Even only a mile distance felt like an entirely different world than the one she knew.
Since graduating high school four years earlier, she hadn’t often been allowed across the river. June Powell had helped her sneak away a few times this summer, but before that, she hadn’t seen the girl she considered her only
friend in months.
It hadn’t seemed so bad, right out of high school. At eighteen, Ruth hadn’t been too concerned about her future. Her father had groomed her for this path her entire life: she’d get married, probably to Arnold Johnson, and end up in a trailer a few doors away. It wasn’t an ideal life, and it wasn’t the one Ruth would have picked for herself, but she was a dutiful and obedient daughter, as the Bible demanded. If that’s what Edward thought was best, then that was what was best.
Four years later, and she was practically an old maid. Arnold Johnson still stared at her sometimes in church, but he’d made no move to propose. Ruth had stopped waiting—she hadn’t much been looking forward to that part, anyway. However, now the future loomed before her, vast and undefined, and somehow that was just as bad as sleeping next to Arnold every night.
Yet the years of stasis had done a peculiar thing. It gave her time to hope for other things.
things. Things her father might not approve of.
She bit her lip.
That’s the kind of thinking that got you punished
, she told herself sternly.
That’s why you can do what you do.
And just like that, she and Edward reached the center of town, and the evidence of sin was before her.
The earth was pitted all around the square, scorched, dead grass everywhere. South of town, the Riverview neighborhood had suffered as well. There was damaged property, an entire tree ripped from its roots, shattered glass windows. That’s where her father had been—in the home of a parishioner—when the car had been destroyed. The fight had caused enough destruction to town that it would take weeks before Independence Falls looked like itself again. But it would be much longer than that before the soul of the town was mended.
Ruth and her father skirted the town square for the general store. Through a scorched gap in the hedgerow around the one-time lovely garden, the fountain was closed off for repairs. Its lovely, curved stone crumbled to bits that still littered the ground. Even the statue of Mamie Watkins, at the front of the gardens, was missing an arm.
Edward snorted and motioned toward it. “Ruining that idol is the only good thing to come out of all this, Ruthie.”
The general store was busy as they entered, buzzing with activity. Since the school year had ended several weeks beforehand, it felt like there were always people out and about during the day, and now everyone had something juicy to gossip about. Ruth followed her father through the threshold and waited for his instruction, but he waved her off almost immediately, so she turned into the nearest aisle, nearly running straight into Briar Steele as she went.
Briar took a step back and brushed a hand down her dress, smoothing invisible wrinkles. She arched a pale, blond brow at Ruth. “You in a hurry?”
“Sorry,” Ruth said. “I didn’t see you. It was my fault.”
It had been years since Ruth had spoken to Briar Steele, not since they’d attended high school together. Even then, several years had separated them. They had never been friends.
In fact, Ruth was fairly certain Briar—called “Briar the Liar” by her peers—was the only other girl who had been as much a pariah as she and Cora Murphy. For Briar, it wasn’t lack of money or family connections, it was because it was well known that every word out of her mouth was a lie. No one wanted to be friends with someone who couldn’t be counted on to be honest.
Ruth understood secrets, however, and she knew that there were some stories no one wanted to hear. She coped by never telling them to anyone, and Briar coped by living in a fantasy world. Everyone needed an escape, Ruth knew, and she could hardly begrudge Briar hers.
They parted ways, each giving a small nod, and Ruth went straight to the back right corner of the store. She knew exactly what she needed. The problem was, she wasn’t sure how to get it.