Authors: Nicole Sewell
Copyright © 2016 Nicole Sewell
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents
are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
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I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve left Shiloh in my life.
Once, when I was six, my mother marched me outside the walls to teach me a lesson in obedience after I refused to wear thick gray tights under my dress in the summer.
“Disobedient people belong outside the walls. Everyone outside the walls will die, Alaina. Do you want to die too?” she yelled as I sobbed and begged to be let back in.
When I was ten, everyone in Shiloh was made to line the road outside of the main gate. We were each given a stone and told to hurl it at the man being led out. He and a girl a few years older than me had been accused of fornication after being caught kissing in a barn. Later, after the interrogation, the girl said he forced himself on her. She was cleared of her charges but the man was found guilty and sentenced to spiritual death, or shunning. After flogging him in front of the Elders’ chambers, they bound his hands and made him walk past us while we threw rocks at him.
“We don’t allow sinners on our property,” Elder White yelled, as his stone hit the man in the back.
Today is different. Today is field trip day for the twelve of us who are going to be of age by the end of the year. Once you turn sixteen you’re expected to pair and mate, as Adam and Eve were commanded in Genesis. You’re also allowed to go on mission trips to try to convert sinners. That’s how Mother came to join Shiloh. She converted when she was nineteen after her parents sent her away for being pregnant with me. The Elders forgave her for fornicating and taught her how to be a desirable woman of the Lord.
Before you can go on mission trips, though, the bible says you have to “know thy enemy.” That’s what today is all about.
I sit in the back of the van between Naomi and Sarah as the rest of the group climbs in and gets settled. I’ve been in a vehicle before. We use pickup trucks and ATV’s for harvest and general farming. I’ve even driven a couple of times. But I’ve never been in a vehicle outside of Shiloh.
Honestly, I’m terrified but so excited I can barely sit still. I was up all last night imagining the places we might go today. Ruth, one of the older girls who has already been on mission trips, told me her field trip was to a shopping center to observe materialism and general greed. She said others have gone to houses of worship to see the idolatry and misguidance from people who call themselves holy.
“Don’t touch me,” Naomi hisses as she nudges my knee away from hers.
“Sorry,” I mutter, pressing my knees together under my skirt, like I’m supposed to. Good women of the Lord keep their knees together at all times, unless they’re walking. My fingers twist in my lap as the last boy climbs in and Elder Oldham shuts the door.
My mother begged me to be on my best behavior this morning as she brushed my mud-colored hair. Then she smiled and told me what she always tells me. “Eyes open, mouth shut.” It’s the motto of the women in Shiloh. It’s embroidered on a pillow in every woman’s home as a reminder of her role.
One day, I’ll have a home of my own and a pillow to remind me of what the Lord expects of me.
The van starts forward and no one speaks. I squirm in my seat, desperate to know just where we’re going. At fifteen, though, I’m expected to know better than to speak out of turn. Only silly little girls blurt questions.
I wish I was like Sarah, sitting silently beside me with a straight spine and pristine blonde hair. They say my hair isn’t blonde like everyone else’s because I was conceived in sin. They say the same about my freckles. No one in Shiloh has dark hair or freckles like I do. I suspect it’s also why my eyes are gold and green instead of just being just one color like everyone else’s, though no one has ever said as much.
Even when my knee knocks into Sarah’s she smiles tightly and moves her leg further from mine, a more mature response than the one Naomi gave me.
“I’m sure you’re all curious about our destination,” Elder Hanson says from the front passenger seat. He’s the youngest Elder in Shiloh’s history and secretly, my favorite of the seven that run our community. He has kind brown eyes and hair as blonde as Sarah’s.
I straighten and press my hands together in my lap, biting the inside of my bottom lip to keep from speaking.
“Today we’ll be visiting a public library,” he says as Elder Stedman steers us down the main road.
This is as far as I’ve ever been from Shiloh and my mother. My heart is hammering in my chest. I have no idea what’s at the end of this road. I’ve seen a few photographs of the outside world, where everyone carries a gun and things can erupt into violent chaos in a split second. I hope today is not like that.
After what feels like an eternity, we stop and Elder Hanson unbuckles his seatbelt. Not a moment too soon, either. I was beginning to get motion sick.
Elder Hanson turns in his seat. “Okay, everyone stick together. Do not touch anything and do not speak to anyone. Understood?” He’s speaking to all of us, but he’s looking directly at me.
Swallowing hard, I nod.
“And what do we do if violence breaks out?” He’s still looking at me.
“Run to the van,” I say.
He sighs loudly and a few of the others snicker. “Alaina, be silent. I wasn’t asking you.”
I shrink and lower my head while one of the boys in the back speaks up to answer Elder Hanson.
Why can’t I keep my mouth shut? Why is it so hard to remember my place?
There are demons on the roof of this building. We all crowd together on the steps and it’s the first thing Elder Hanson points out.
“They call them gargoyles, but we know better,” he says, pointing up at the stone creatures sitting on the edge of the roof.
I shudder and want to ask why we would enter such a wicked place, but I keep my mouth shut and follow everyone up the steps, telling myself that Elder Hanson wouldn’t put us in danger.
Our footsteps echo inside the building. The floors are made of gleaming white stone and the ceilings are impossibly high. I imagine this is what it must’ve been like inside Solomon’s temple. Minus the demons on the roof.
“These people,” Elder Hanson says, quietly, “have devoted this entire building to books that contain dangerous ideas. The books here promote greed, fornication, and murder. And the books are given away freely to allow the wickedness to spread like a disease among them.” He moves forward, past the woman sitting behind a large, ornate desk.
She smiles up at Elder Hanson from her chair as he walks by. “Good morning. Can I help you with something?”
“No, thank you,” he says, unsmiling.
We move through the building and I can’t help but gawk at the rows and rows of books we pass and the people, sitting at tables, reading. Some of them are looking at computer screens just like the ones I’ve seen in pictures. Those things are so dangerous!
I nudge Naomi and jerk my chin at them, raising my eyebrows. She gives me a disgusted look and shakes her head once.
Elder Hanson leads us to a room with a bright green banner over the door that says TEEN CORNER.
This room is mostly vacant, except for a few kids sitting at one table and a woman wearing pants, putting books away.
He leads us to a table and gestures for everyone to sit down. “Now, we sit and observe.”
My eyes rove around the room, drinking it all in. Know thy enemy.
One of the boys sitting with the other kids takes out what I think is a cell phone. He stares at the screen but holds it up while his friends snicker. He grins and taps the screen and puts the phone down on the table where his friends crowd around, all laughing quietly. When they move back, I see what they’re laughing at.
He took a photo of me with his phone.
My cheeks heat and I look to Elder Hanson, eyes wide, waiting for him to say something. He doesn’t react. He doesn’t know what’s just happened. But Naomi does. She’s glaring at me and I just know she’s going to blab the second she gets the chance. She always does.
Naomi says I’m an abomination. She says her father told her that people like me belong on the outside. “Sin is in your blood. You’ll never be a true woman of the Lord.”
We’ve been observing for close to an hour. Other than the lady in pants and the kids that took a picture of me, no one comes in the room.
“Okay,” Elder Hanson says. “Let’s get back to the van.”
Everyone moves to stand up just as a girl my age comes in and goes straight to the shelf labeled Fantasy/Sci-Fi. I watch her closely as I stand and tuck my chair under the table.
She seems harmless, the longer I watch her. She’s wearing pants and has her hair cut above her shoulders, which is totally unacceptable to the Lord, but she doesn’t seem evil.
She chooses a book and pulls it off the shelf, inadvertently freeing several others at the same time. They fall to the floor with a thud. The girl looks up and her cheeks turn pink.
“It’s okay,” the woman in pants says, still putting away books. “Leave them. I’ll put them back.”
The girl nods. “Thank you,” she says, before hurrying out of the room in front of Elder Hanson.
I linger near the shelf, behind everyone else, curious about the books she was looking at. What do evil people read?
The books on the floor have pictures on the covers. One of them catches my eye. It has a horse with a horn and a woman with purple, glittering wings on it. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. How can something this gorgeous be evil? I’d know, right? You can feel evil, I think.
Before I can stop myself, I’m scooping it up. I glance at the woman in pants. Her back is to me as she pushes books into place on a nearby shelf. With my heart slamming into my ribs, I slip the book into the waistband of my skirt and pull my sweater over it.
“Alaina!” Elder Hanson calls to me from the doorway and I just know I’ve been caught. “Keep up,” he barks, holding his hand out to me.
I hesitate, but only for a moment. He didn’t see. Should I take that as a sign? Maybe the Lord wants me to have this book so I can learn more about the enemy outside of Shiloh.
I bite down on the inside of my lip to keep from smiling as I hurry over and take his hand.
Three weeks later, during our Women of the Lord class, Sister Berman calls on me to recite the verse she’s just been teaching us. I stare at her, wide-eyed and panicked. I have no idea what she’s said since class began two hours ago. I’ve been thinking about my book. The one I took from the library and have stayed up every night reading. I’ve barely slept since I got that book and it’s starting to take its toll. I’m starting to slip.