Authors: Hope Denney,Linda Au
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Gothic, #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance
“I haven’t started the inside or finished the roof,” Eric said, his lips at her ear, making her insides quake. “The first order of business is to hack out the jungle it’s sitting in. Common sense would have dictated I made a road directly to it instead of hauling things up to the back of the lot from Margaret’s Glade, but I wanted to surprise you. I’ve never been able to surprise you. It’s only three minutes from the main road. Cutting a path to it won’t take any time at all.”
“We’re going to live here! We have a house to move into, and I was going to be satisfied moving into the Glade.”
“I had to take a loan from Pa to build it, and I haven’t finished it,” said Eric. “It may be a long while before we’re able to live here, but it’s waiting for us when we are married.”
“I wish we were married now. Let’s go visit Mr. Buchanan now and we’ll move in later today.”
“I think you would like walls dividing the rooms and other trivial features like solid flooring.”
“Nonsense. I’ll do well with a pillow and coffee mugs.” She clung to his arm. “This makes everything real!”
“Merry Christmas, Somerset.”
She put her arms around his neck and kissed him with the uninhibited joy that only a first love can bring.
The house dissolved away into the air. Somerset found herself in the Century Grove cemetery at the foot of Eric’s marker. She spun in circles, terrified. Joseph came walking up behind her. He was in uniform and carried his Whitfield, the trusty weapon that he burned upon the first day of his return home.
“Why are we here?” she cried. “I was happy. I was myself again, the person I was meant to be. Take me back.”
Joseph did not answer. He laid the Whitfield at the foot of the grave and knelt there, almost as if in prayer.
Sawyer came through the gate. She ran to him and tried to take his hand.
“I’m so glad you came. I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m ready to leave, Sawyer.”
Sawyer disengaged her hand. He went to the tombstone and knelt beside Joseph.
Teddie scaled the side of the iron fence and dropped down into the cemetery. He strode over, golden hair flapping about his brow, and surveyed the gravesite.
“Teddie, take me home,” pleaded Somerset. “Take pity on me. I can’t bear to see all of you together again without him. The Brotherhood you all had is dissolved and I don’t want reminders.”
A rhythmic sound like thunder met her ears and, turning, she was engulfed in a sea of blue more impressive than the ocean. Union troops, every single one who ever fought, surrounded the Century Grove cemetery. They pressed against the fence, swelling and multiplying as they closed in, a true cohesion of malice and strength. They stretched out to the horizons and then swallowed those. Somerset tasted the same sour fear in her mouth that she experienced when she burned the barn over the heads of Wilson’s raiders but not before they could get her sister.
“Aren’t you even going to load your weapons?” she cried. “No wonder I lost him! I hate you, and I know now that I would trade all three of you to have him back. I lost everything the day he was killed, and you are not worth a fraction of his life.”
They ignited her fury further by paying her no mind. She clenched her fists and raised them with furious words pouring from her, but it did no good.
The air changed with a whoosh that nearly knocked her down. Crows—flocks of black-feathered, sharp-clawed, wary birds—circled above them in the evening sky. No bit of sky peeked through as they moved in swirls above. Their caws filled her ears, the air and her body as she breathed.
“How do you know he was killed? There was no body. How do you know he was killed? There was no body. How do you know he was killed? There was no body.”
Somerset raced for her life, but there was nothing to get to past the gate but the soldiers. As she darted through the tombstones, a black bird swooped in her face and screamed.
She sat up in the darkness and tried to scream, but a hand clapped over her mouth, suffocating her. Somerset bit like a cornered bobcat at the hard palm over her mouth. A candle blazed in her face, and Victoria’s eyes appeared directly in front of hers.
“Goodness! You must be sick. I tried to shake you awake, Somerset, but you seemed delirious.”
“Oh no.” Somerset huffed out an unsteady breath.
“Maybe I should brew you some of Bess’s fever tea?”
Somerset held onto the soft hands that were stroking her forehead and shook her head no. She’d rather go on letting them believe she was sick instead of crazy.
“Maybe in the morning if it hasn’t passed,” she said. “I never sleep well when I drink it.”
“I think we should send for the doctor.”
“Please no. Just sit here a moment until this awful feeling passes and then I’ll go back to sleep.”
Victoria scooted farther onto the bed and set the candle on the window sill.
Somerset pulled her damp nightgown away from her wet body and pushed herself up against the pillows.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” she whispered into the darkness. “I’m not feeling well, and I dreamed a horrendous nightmare, the kind you don’t forget about in the morning.”
“What was it about?”
“I dreamed the entire Union army surrounded me and there was nowhere to go. I could see their pale, leering faces. I could feel their intentions. Every man we lost in battle, every misdeed we survived here—they were all committed by some of the faces in that hideous gang of men. The way they pushed and multiplied and went on forever was heinous. I was drowning in an ocean of harm but no one would help me. There were these massive crows and they—it was terrifying.”
Victoria hung her head.
“I won’t forget your dream, either,” she shuddered.
Her young, heart-shaped face looked vulnerable in the shadows. Somerset felt the stirrings of regret in her stomach at having confessed such an awful thing to a wounded person. Where Victoria was concerned, Somerset wanted to be compassionate and hold things back in order to protect her. She was still only a girl, a hurt girl, and didn’t need to be concerned with Somerset’s problems.
“Go,” she said. “Go back to bed. I don’t feel as if I might fly to pieces anymore. Thank you for waking me. You’re the best sister, Victoria.”
“If you feel worse later don’t hesitate to come get me.”
“If I think I need the doctor, I’ll come get you. Thank you again. Good night.”
“I love you, Somerset. Good night.”
Victoria padded across the room in bare feet, blew out her candle, and cracked the door.
Somerset rolled over on her side and lay staring out the window. The silvery light suggested that it was around two in the morning. She felt the chill of sweat running down her back and trembled. There would be no more sleep tonight, maybe not for several nights.
Her stomach hurt. Her mouth was dry. Her mind repeated the cacophony of conversations that comprised all the broken events in her life. She tiptoed over to the worn cedar rocker that had been hers since Blanche first rocked her in it and sat down with her knees drawn up to her chin.
Eric was gone, but beyond herself and his parents, everyone’s lives were intact. Sawyer was going to break things off with her if his gradual withdrawal from her life over the past weeks was any indication. She guessed there was something to becoming like the company one kept; he was growing more like Joseph, hard to entertain and harder to hold. If Sawyer didn’t want her, then Victoria’s life was devoid of improvement as well. She was well on her way to Richmond. She didn’t want to be handed over to an old dog, twenty years her senior, to command his household and keep his bed warm. The idea made her want the only person who ever made her feel safe.
She rose from her chair and pulled on her dressing gown and slippers before any concrete idea settled itself in her mind. She skimmed the staircase on quick little feet and closed the front door behind her before anyone could have half a chance to awaken.
The moon was surrounded by transparent, puffy clouds that might have been tissue paper. Its light gleamed down on her bare head, making her hair look black. She stood on the top step of Orchard Rest only long enough to make sure the porch swing and lawn chairs were empty. Thomas kept a variable schedule and there was never any telling when and where he would turn up. Assured that she was alone in the world, she broke into a run down the drive.
She stumbled in the dirt country lane over loose rocks and skinned her knees and elbows, but the drive within her to unburden herself to the person she loved most urged her on to an unlikely nighttime destination.
She unlocked the gate and let herself in, catching the hem of her gown on the latch and tearing it. It never failed to amaze her how peaceful a graveyard could be. The only eerie aspect was how the newer white stones shone under the light of the moon as if holding trapped life inside. She avoided stepping on graves and eased up to Eric’s as though she might catch him lounging at the base of the monument.
“I haven’t been able to talk to you in a long time,” she said, “but I need to talk to you now. Everything in my life is wrong. It’s as though I unerringly made the wrong decision every time I was presented with a new choice to make. I wish you were here to advise me.
“I used to be afraid that you were angry at me for moving on, but then I realized that you were a good man and never asked me to sacrifice happiness. I love Sawyer. I tried not to, but I don’t think I can learn to be happy without him. He doesn’t want to be with me anymore, Eric, and I don’t know why. These aren’t good times to get married, but he always asked—no, he begged—for me to just try to love him. I think there is more to it than that. I know he feels guilty about taking your place, and he knows that Mother and Papa expect a well-made marriage for me. I don’t think he wants to put up with them, constantly trying to live up to some lore that died the day General Lee surrendered. It exhausts me to pretend the past can be regained, and I can’t blame him for not wanting to be part of their exclusive world.
“I wish I had you here to help me through this, but if you were here, we’d be asleep on the same pillow and poor Sawyer wouldn’t be an option. I haven’t felt your presence in years, Eric, although I used to be enough of a romantic to believe great love transcends even death. Sometimes I wonder if you are dead. I can imagine you all over the world, anywhere but the grave.”
Somerset stopped and cast her eyes up at the sky, drawing on what she needed to say.
She took a breath and plunged on.
“I never stopped loving you. I just need to try to love people other than you. I can’t be consumed by a person who isn’t with me, but sometimes I get the feeling we have unfinished business.”
Somerset recalled her nightmare, the way the troops stretched forever in every direction as far as the eye could see. She wrapped her arms around herself against the damp dewy air. A bat swooped low in pursuit of a mosquito, making her heart race as she recalled the way the crows screamed at her over and over during the nightmare.
How do you know he was killed? There was no body.
“I looked for you. I looked everywhere for you, Eric. I left no stone unturned when you went missing. Somehow I am still searching for you, and it’s wearing me out. I’m so frazzled that I’m forgetting how to live. No matter what happens after this night, I am going to remember how to live. I have to go home. I shouldn’t be out here alone.”
Somerset hurried out and locked the gate with clumsy hands.
It always troubled her that a body wasn’t recovered. She thought of her darling exposed to the elements and the wildlife. She thought of the enemies the Brotherhood made as they tracked down and killed countless Union officials. Eric had not caused his enemy to feel any love for him. Union soldiers might have taken Eric’s body and done macabre acts to it. He might have died in a Union prison after torture and starvation. He might be in a home anywhere, senseless and unable to say who he was. She thought of the West, where countless men had disappeared into the plains to start new lives after injuries, amnesia, and other maladies robbed them of their identities.
“You always do this to yourself,” she said as she ran along the main road. “You doubt everything until you can’t recognize the truth.”
There was only one thing left to do. She had to unburden herself to someone close to the situation. Sawyer might not want her anymore and Theodore might be unreachable, but Joseph was going to have to talk about it again. He gave her one terse account of Eric’s last day when they saw each other again for the first time after his death, and after that he refused to speak of the day.
“I blame myself for not saving him, and I’ll be hung if I let you berate me for not being good enough. We weren’t outnumbered by much. The five of them to the four of us shouldn’t have caused so much trouble, and if we had been any count, we would have noticed them all when we were scouting the area. I already live in a house where people think I’m not enough, if you haven’t noticed!” he had hollered and slammed his glass so hard on the table that there was a permanent circular dent in the wood.
She never spoke of it to him again, but she would tonight. His anger and regret were nothing compared to her lingering pain and the hollowness of her days.
She let herself back into the house and navigated the hallway that ran through the men’s quarters. She glided past Thomas’s room on hushed feet, tiptoed down the hall past the office that he never used anymore, passed the room that had belonged to Theodore before he married Amelia, and stopped outside Joseph’s door. She exhaled and gathered her determination, then raised her hand to knock at the door. She stopped. Voices argued beyond the door.