Authors: Carrie Ryan
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Horror stories, #Death & Dying, #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Orphans, #Horror tales, #zombies, #Love & Romance, #Social Issues, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #Girls & Women
Since that first day when she stood by the window in her strange red vest I haven't seen her again and I begin to worry if she is well. But I know she is still here in the Cathedral. I can see it in the way the Sisters whisper among themselves and eye those of us who are uninitiated into the inner sanctum. The air is tense here, like a cord pulled taut.
I have grown reckless in my attempts to speak with Gabrielle and I know that I'm tempting Sister Tabitha's wrath if she finds out. But I can't help it. It is like a fever. Now that I'm no longer allowed to see Travis, Gabrielle is all I can think about.
I've decided that it is worth Sister Tabitha and the Unconsecrated if I can at last find out what is past the Forest.
A knock at the door startles me from my thoughts. It's a young Sister sent to bring me to see Sister Tabitha. She leads me back toward the Sanctuary in the heart of the Cathedral and through to another wing that is off-limits except to the most elite Sisters.
I wonder if this is it. If these steps will be the last that I will take. If I am finally paying for my curiosity and stubbornness and impetuousness. I wonder if I will beg for Sister Tabitha's forgiveness when she leads me through the tunnel back toward the old well house and abandons me in the Forest.
But Sister Tabitha is not alone when I enter her office, sharp sunlight stabbing my eyes as it pours through three large windows that overlook the village. Harry is there with her, his arms straight by his sides, hands clenched into fists. Travis is dead, I suddenly think. I was told he had turned for the worse and here is his brother looking solemn and sad and I almost sink to my knees.
“I have news,” Sister Tabitha tells me and I nod because my vocal cords are being eaten away with acid tears.
“Harry has spoken for you, Mary,” she tells me.
I whip my head around to face Harry. I can feel my eyebrows draw together with shock and anger. I cannot believe this could be the truth. Why would he speak for me now when he hadn't done so before, when it would have mattered and when I could have said yes and meant it? Back when I didn't know love and could have been happy with admiration and acceptance?
“But the Sisterhood,” I stammer. This cannot be happening.
“I have given him my blessing. So has your brother, Jed,” Sister Tabitha says. “You are needed more out there as a wife and mother than in here as a Sister.” Her sharp eyes bore into me. “We both know you are ill-suited for the Sisterhood.”
The world swirls around me and I have nothing to cling to in order to make it right. All I can think about is Travis and how it felt to press against his body that night. How can I ever be with his brother after that?
“You will marry at Brethlaw in the spring,” she continues. “With Travis and Cassandra,” she adds as if she doesn't know that she is breaking my heart.
“My duties to God…,” I begin to ask, even though I don't believe in God.
“Will be served by doing His will and making sure our village thrives through another generation,” she finishes.
She means having children with Harry. My stomach clenches at the thought of it. I think of his hand holding mine under the water the day that my mother was infected. I think about the way his flesh looked, puffy and white and wrong.
I open my mouth, ready to reject his courtship. But then I realize that doing so will tie my fate to the Sisterhood forever, will condemn me to a life inside these walls in service to God and Sister Tabitha.
My mind whirls, trying to determine which is the better choice, which the better fate: life as wife to Harry or life as a Sister. Neither one bringing me closer to Travis.
“Would you two like a moment alone together to speak?” she asks us.
I glance at Harry, not caring that pain and rage and desolation radiate from my body. He looks at me, his expression soft, his hands no longer fisted. It seems as if he's leaning forward, about to take a step closer to me. I feel my muscles tense and shake in response.
I am surprised that I don't growl like a wounded animal cornered by dogs. He starts to raise a hand—whether to beckon me or fend me off I don't know or care. Already I feel myself pulling away from him, putting physical space between us without taking a step.
His eyes become harder, deeper, and he shakes his head. “No,” he says. And then he leaves and I'm escorted back to my room where I collapse and sob. I pull at my hair and pound my fists against my thighs and throw myself onto the ground in front of the dying fire.
Once upon a time life with Harry might have been acceptable. Once upon a time my mother's stories were only fancies and my world was sunny and warm and full of love and friends. But there was never excitement. There was no such thing as life beyond the village. Before I may have had a crush on Travis, but it was a simple childish longing that could have easily been erased by the contentment of being asked to marry Harry.
But all that has changed now. Both Mother and Father are Unconsecrated, Travis is broken, Cass is absent, Jed no longer cares enough to even speak to me when he comes to the Cathedral for worship.
And there is life outside the Forest.
I can hear the Unconsecrated moaning. The sound carries over the old dingy snow and through the window. I think again about how uncomplicated their life is, how much easier. I wonder why we all fight against it, why we have struggled against them for so long rather than just accepting our fate.
No longer caring about the consequences, I slip out of my room and march down the hall and up the steps toward where the Outsider is being kept. I am about to shove someone out of my way when I realize who it is: Cassandra.
She is coming out of Travis's old room.
“Cass?” I ask. “What are you doing here?” I reach out for a hug and she obliges but her arms are weak and limp around me. It has been weeks since we have seen each other, months since we have spent time together as friends the way we used to before my mother became Unconsecrated. For the first time I realize just how far we have drifted apart and how much I have missed her friendship, missed having someone to confide my fear and pain and confusion in.
She lets me go first and pulls the door behind her until she hears the click, cutting off the only source of light in the narrow hallway. “I am here for Travis,” she tells me.
My breath catches in my throat, thoughts of the Outsider suddenly eclipsed. “He's well? He's back upstairs?”
She nods and tugs on her long blond braid and bites her lip with her top teeth. “Travis is mine now, Mary. Just like Harry is yours.”
“I…” I want to tell her that she's wrong and that Travis loves me and will always be mine. But of course that's not true. Travis was never mine. Even during those long nights praying together I knew Travis belonged to someone else. He was always Cass's. Just as I am now Harry's.
She lets go of her braid and places a hand on my arm and I have to force myself not to wince. “You must let him go, Mary,” she tells me, her fingers digging into my skin. “He would follow you anywhere and he cannot. He just cannot.”
“You know, I fell in love with Harry. Just in the last few weeks, when Travis's pain was too much for me.” She looks past my shoulder, as if she is somewhere other than in a hallway deep in the Cathedral. “We spent so much time together. He held my hand. I was certain he was going to ask for me.” She is back to tugging at her braid. “I was so certain that he loved me.” Her gaze lands on me, narrow and sharp. “But then he asked for you instead.”
Too many thoughts swirl in my head. “I thought you were being courted by Travis. I thought he asked you to the Harvest Celebration.” I think back to all the times Cass visited Travis, all the times she knelt by his bed and comforted him and I took her dedication as love and possession. “How could Harry ask for you if you were already pledged?”
She cocks her head to the side as if she is seeing me for the first time in ages. “Sister Tabitha gave me the option of ending the courtship,” she tells me. “They weren't sure that he would survive the infection and even if he did they assumed he would be crippled and therefore not a suitable husband able to physically care for a wife. I came to visit him out of loyalty and friendship. Just like you.”
Of course Cass would visit Travis in his time of need, courtship or not—all of us have known each other our whole lives, have grown up together almost as if we were our own family.
“Then what happened?” I ask her.
Her eyes harden. “Harry asked for you instead of me.”
“But why?” My voice is shallow, desperate.
A muscle ripples along her jaw. Slowly, she shrugs, tilting her head toward her shoulder as she does.
“It doesn't have to be this way,” I tell her. I've never seen Cass like this—so serious and resolute and somber.
“It does,” she says.
“But if you love Harry and I…” I stop but we both know what I am about to say.
“You love Travis,” she finishes for me. I can only stand in silence, my hands hanging by my sides. I let my head drop. Not for the first time today my legs feel weak and I am empty inside. How can everything have gone so wrong so quickly?
“I'm sorry,” I finally whisper.
“I know you didn't mean it,” she says, placing a hand on my arm. “Just as I didn't mean to fall for Harry.” I can't look into her eyes, I can't let her see my hesitation. Because I know that I did mean it. Never did I stop in my desire for Travis, even when I saw Cass with him and how she had cried by his bed. All this time I knew they were pledged. That I was tempting Travis to break his word, to reject my best friend in order to be with me and that he loved me enough to do just that.
I place my hand over hers but she pulls away, her cool flesh slipping from mine. “I just don't understand why we can't change this. If this isn't the way things should be, if this isn't what we want—”
“Harry spoke for you, Mary,” she says through her teeth. “He has made his choice. He has chosen you over me. And if he intends for me to marry Travis, then that is what I shall do.”
Cass is so fervent in her proclamation that it scares me. She has always been the carefree girl, the happy one who pushes worries and problems to the side.
“But we can still change this, Cass.” I lean toward her. “I will talk to Harry, I will tell him that I do not want to be with him—”
Quick as a snake she reaches out her hand, grabs my shoulder, pulls me to her until our faces are close. In the dimness of the hallway she seems to be nothing but shadows, her eyebrows drawn together in a fierce scowl. “You will do no such thing. You will not break his heart like that.”
“But this isn't the way things should be. If I want to be with Travis—”
She cuts me off again by shaking my arm, pushing me back against the wall of the hallway. “If you break Harry's heart, I promise that I will never let go of Travis. You will be alone. You will be sent back here to the Sisters.” She pauses and as if reading my mind adds, “And don't think that Travis will reject me for you. He would never do that to his own brother. You must realize that anything he may have once felt is gone now that Harry has officially spoken for you. Now that you are to be his brother's wife.”
Her words pierce through my body. I have never seen her like this, so bitter and sharp and stormy. “But, Cass, don't you see? You don't love Travis. And he doesn't love you!” I know I am being harsh and cruel but she must face the truth.
She looks at me as if she doesn't understand and then laughs. “Marriage is not about love, Mary,” she says, like a teacher talking to a student. “It is about commitment and compromise and caring. None of this has ever been about love.”
I shake my head in disbelief. “But you said that you loved Harry and yet you are willing to set him aside. Why?”
Once again she shrugs. “I'm doing what is best for him. And for the village. This is the way it has to be, Mary. This is the way it will be.”
I want to shake her, to make her understand. She sounds exactly like Sister Tabitha, as if she doesn't comprehend the choices she's making for all of us. I realize just how strong the Sisters' influence is, how tightly they have bound us in their beliefs.
I open my mouth to continue arguing with Cass, but the look in her eyes, the ferocity, is too unnerving. For the first time my best friend terrifies me.
But she is also right. Even if I reject Harry, Travis would never speak for me in his place. He would never cause his brother such embarrassment or pain. It is as if every door in my life has been slammed shut, every window boarded up until there is only one path for me to take. My choice is either Harry or the Sisterhood.
And so, as my shoulders fall, I relent. “Okay,” I tell her.
She nods once. And then says, “You must let Travis go now. Today. Here.”
A protest hovers at my lips but her eyes scare me into silence. I wonder if we'll ever be friends again or if this will be the end of us. Of course we'll always be civil—the village is too small to feud—but will we share ourselves fully with each other as we did before?
Suddenly, in this moment I feel as if I have no ground, as if I have lost everything all at once and I need something to hold steady. I see my life in a flash, Cass always by my side, always listening to my stories and laughing with me and sharing our lives. Memories of our friendship fill me and tears prick my eyes. I need Cass now; I cannot lose this last tie to everything I have ever been.
“Promise me,” I tell her. “Promise me that we will still be friends, will continue to be there for each other.”
She smiles, a hint of the old Cass, the scent of sunbeams floating through the air. “Yes,” she says. And all I can think is, if it were only that simple, as I remember how it was always someone else she came to visit at the Cathedral and never me.
I look back down the hallway, past Travis's room to where the Outsider was being kept. Her door is open barely a crack, a sliver of light slipping through. Pushing past Cass, I run to the room but it's bare, no linens on the bed or any other evidence that a guest has recently occupied this space. I should have known. The window has been dark for days.