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Authors: Jolina Petersheim

Tags: #FICTION / Contemporary Women, #FICTION / Christian / Romance

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BOOK: The Alliance
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I avoid a reply by moving into the kitchen. I pour two glasses of water and take a sip from mine. Standing in the parallelogram of light beaming in from the window, I look at the scarred stretch of grass leading to the wreckage of the plane. My earlier conversation with Moses replays in my mind, when I asked him how we could get everything back post-EMP, and he declared that we could not. I wonder how Melinda is going to fare if this altered lifestyle turns out to be far more than temporary.

Leora

F
OUR DAYS HAVE PASSED,
and we’ve not seen anyone besides the two neighbors who have stopped by. But both Brian Mendenhall and Richard Murphy were seeking answers to the same questions we have been asking ourselves. Jabil told me that, with Bishop Lowell’s permission, he invited them and their families to join our community. He thought we could benefit by having some
Englischers
on hand whom we could trust, and that the families would benefit by feeling more secure, shielded inside our walls. Mr. Mendenhall and Mr. Murphy, to Jabil’s surprise, refused his offer. Also anticipating looters, they said their families must stay and defend their land.

This lull is virtually as debilitating as the fear of seeing masses of people swarming on the horizon. In the interlude, all we can do is brace ourselves for a horror we’re not sure exists. So, though it is the Sabbath, we are trying to take our minds off of it by staying busy.
Busy
for the men means siphoning gas from the otherwise-useless vehicles and using it to sustain the generators, so they can run power tools that will help them construct the perimeter at a far more sufficient pace.
Busy
for the women means heeding Moses’s advice and scrambling to distribute whatever meats and cheeses are left in the industrial cooler, which is
no longer cooling since the backup generator’s being used for the construction.

I am the only one who has not been busy by any definition of the word. Anna’s routine-oriented nature has regressed a year for every day since the electrical grid stopped working, rendering us post-EMP housebound. Somehow Moses learned why I have not been at Field to Table. Yesterday, when I was sitting on the back steps braiding Anna’s hair, I heard a noise and turned to look. Moses was coming around the corner, limping, his shoulders and forearms straining with the weight of two old log-stain buckets crammed with leftover pine boards.

“Found some paint and stuff when I was over at the pavilion looking for nails.” He set the buckets against the greenhouse. “Thought you could maybe make some signs for the perimeter, warning that the property’s under surveillance.”

“Thought that, did you?” I wasn’t sure if my tone was coy or annoyed. Moses didn’t seem to know either. He shifted his weight and pushed back his baseball cap. A piece of hair was pasted to his forehead with sweat. Should I be grateful that he singled me out?

Eyes stinging, I lowered my gaze, acting preoccupied with my sister’s hair, which I could fishtail braid in my sleep. Anna slapped my thigh as I, again, pulled it too tight around her ears. “Sorry,” I murmured, relaxing my grip.
I looked back at Moses. He was watching my sister with the bewildered expression I’ve witnessed many times before. So far he hadn’t had enough interaction with her to notice anything other than the fact that Anna possesses our
mudder
’s head-turning beauty. Now he saw the truth.

“She had an accident when she was six,” I explained. “Fell from the barn loft. She’s never been quite right since then.”

A line appeared between Moses’s brows. His pupils telescoped in the light. “I’m sorry.”

“No need,” I reassured him—I reassured myself. “She doesn’t know anything’s wrong.”

But
I
knew something was wrong; I remembered life before, when she was all right. We went from telling knock-knock jokes while we ate breakfast that morning, to me standing over her pediatric bed in Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital that night, staring at the patch covering the burr hole in her skull, which the neurosurgeon had drilled to access the hemorrhage on the surface of her brain. That instant was the most defining of my life, for just as there was such a stark contrast between how my sister’s day started and ended, I knew the rest of my own days were never going to be the same.

“I guess not knowing anything’s wrong does make it easier for her,” Moses agreed. “But I imagine it can’t be all that easy for
you
 . . . to remember how she was before the accident.”

I dropped the pretense of studying my sister’s hair and met his gaze. He smiled sadly. I found myself smiling in return—amazed that someone I just met could read my mind when no one else made the effort to understand me. Touching two fingers to his hat brim in a halfhearted salute, Moses Hughes left his buckets behind. Did they symbolize a proposal of friendship? Or did his singling me out mean something more?

I dared not hope the latter. It scared me to watch him limp away and realize I did.

Moses

“Too tall?” Charlie bellows. “You kidding me? We don’t want people jumping over the perimeter like pole-vaulters!”

Jabil holds his ground. “All I’m saying is that we don’t want to waste logs if we could use them someplace else.”

Charlie finally stops hammering. “Someplace else? This is our main defense against bloodthirsty thieves, and
you
want to go build yourself a cabin?”

Jabil sighs. “Don’t be irrational, Charlie. Nobody’s building a cabin. But if we cut the logs down from fourteen feet to eight, we could use that six feet to build outhouses.”

“They can use the woods!”

“We’re talking women and children and elderly, Charlie. Not men who could care less.”

Charlie steps away from the perimeter. “What you tryin’ to say?”

Jabil lifts his hands. “Just that it’s time to think of the community’s immediate needs for a change, rather than putting all our efforts into a project that might not need to be done.”

Charlie’s eyes glitter. He stalks across the flat stretch of earth and hovers over Jabil. The difference in height doesn’t make Jabil look small as much as it emphasizes how huge Charlie is. He spits, “You haven’t lifted one finger doing this ‘project,’ while the four of us—” he juts his chin at Henri, Sean, and me, who are watching this exchange like it comes with popcorn—“have been out here in the heat, working like dogs. So unless you’re ready to climb down from your ivory tower and get your namby-pamby hands dirty, I say it’s high time you kept your trap shut.”

The air crackles like the prelude to a storm. Jabil lifts his chin and meets Charlie’s gaze. “And if
you
can’t converse in a civil manner, you can pack up your things and leave.”

The veins pulse in Charlie’s arms, as if the blood is feeding the muscles contracting his hand, wrapped around the hammer. I’m about to step in, to keep Jabil from getting his head bashed, when Charlie yells and throws that hammer as hard as he can into the field. It flips end over end for yards—the worn metal glinting—before it’s swallowed by the grass.

All five of us stare in disbelief at that area of grass. Even Charlie looks shocked.

Tossing my post-hole digger, I pick up my crutches. “Well, think it’s time for a water break.” I take two steps toward Field to Table and then stop. “By the way, Charlie . . . if pole-vaulting over the perimeter doesn’t work out, you might have a career in discus.”

Leora

There’s nothing like the demolition of modern society to make me want to clean house. The past two days, under the guise of ascertaining how much food we have, I’ve organized our cellar and pantry. Under the guise of trying to let in as much natural light as possible, since we’re conserving the oil in our lamps, I’ve used vinegar and newspaper to scour our windows. I have no real excuse to clean baseboards, but it’s soothing to get down on my hands and knees and use an old toothbrush to eradicate the grime, which accumulates so quickly because of the firewood brought in twice daily for the cookstove.

The women in our community clean like this once, maybe twice, a year. I do it every month. Sometimes
twice
a month if I’m assaulted with some peculiar angst: Anna having more bad spells than good, Seth talking back to me like a teenager, another birthday celebrated without
my parents—all of these disparate events making me feel incompetent until I clean.

The living room is the only room in the house I haven’t touched, as I make a habit of avoiding the place where my mother died, as well as avoiding the memory of finding her. Biting the inside of my cheek, I remain standing in front of the cracked living room door, debating about going inside, regardless of whether Melinda from Colorado is up for company or not. She chose this room rather than sharing a bed with
Grossmammi
Eunice, who surprised us all by granting permission for a stranger to stay in her midst. But even though I love my grandmother, I wouldn’t sleep a wink if I were forced to sleep in her room.

Though I do want to clean, dust accumulation is not the only thing I’m worried about. Melinda’s been wearing the same outfit since the EMP. Despite expensive tailoring, the clothing is beginning to soften with body oil, the pressed creases on the silk short sleeves and linen slacks reducing to a wilt. I offered to heat water on the woodstove to fill the tub for her. I explained to Melinda that she could first bathe in the tub and then use the water to wash her clothes. She didn’t say anything, but her expression conveyed that she thought taking a bath in a place where stereotypically “dirty” Old Order Mennonites have been bathing for years would be as barbaric as piercing her lip with a bone. Therefore, for the past three days, she has not
washed her clothes or bathed—which I think makes
her
the barbarian, not us.

Decision made, I take a breath, open the door wider, and step into the room. Melinda sits up and finger-combs hair from her eyes. She hasn’t moved from the couch except to use the bathroom, and then she had the audacity to complain that the toilet didn’t work. She said this although I’ve told her countless times that the pressurized tank located at Field to Table, which supplied water throughout the community, has also shut down due to the electrical failure. So, if she needs to use the toilet, she must carry a bucket of water in from the hand pump to flush the bowl. Needless to say, she hasn’t. I’ve had to clean up after her every time.

She squints at me. “What time is it?”

“Two o’clock. You hungry?”

“No.” Turning, she stares at the window like the curtain’s not obstructing the view. “Thanks, though. Maybe in a little while.”

There is at least a fifteen-year gap between us, but I feel decades older. Just as Melinda’s made no effort to follow my instructions, I’ve made no effort to conceal my resentment concerning her helplessness. If I can just get her to eat, to bathe, to go for a walk, it will feel like I am stabilizing this Tilt-A-Whirl, if only for a moment.

Melinda takes a sip of water. Her fingers tremble as she
sets down the glass. She sees me looking at the prescription bottle magnified behind it and says, “I can’t sleep otherwise.” She dabs sweat from her lip with her knuckle and reclines on the couch again, careful not to move her upper body, as if it’s been injured in a wreck. “I don’t have pictures,” she says. “They’re all on my phone.” I glance at her, stunned that she’s trying to communicate something other than a complaint, but then look away—her vulnerability as shocking to me as nakedness. Tears are trickling from the woman’s eyes, darkening the oily temples of her hair, and yet her expression remains the same. “Nobody carries around pictures of their family anymore. Have you noticed?”

I shake my head while continuing to stare at the curtained window. I have not noticed. No one in our community carries pictures at all, since they’re considered graven images, and the
Englisch
customers who used to come to Field to Table never bothered to share their family photos with me, as I was just a quaint,
kapped
anomaly who sometimes bagged up their sandwiches and homemade bread. But Melinda does not care to hear this. She is not speaking to me as much as she is verbally processing the EMP that, for her, brought far more hardships than hauling water and fairly distributing food. For her, the EMP created a vast canyon separating her from her family, a canyon that might never be bridged.

For the first time since Melinda’s arrival, compassion overtakes my resentment. I take an afghan from the cedar chest. She murmurs as I spread it over her shoulders, smiling lazily, as if already sedated by the prescription drugs. “Thank you, Leora. Really. You’ve been so kind.” My throat burns with guilt. At a loss for words, I nod and stride out of the living room. I turn before I pull the door behind me and see that her breathing is already deepened by sleep.

BOOK: The Alliance
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