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
“What are you doing to me?” I shout. My voice is harsh and scratchy with fear, my words almost choking me as I gulp for air. I grope along the ground, searching with my fingers for a stick or a weapon or anything as the moans get louder, and then I hear a familiar clank. It is the sound of the Unconsecrated pulling at the fence.
Looking around, I realize that I have come up in a small clearing far away from the village that is protected by a ring of fence twice as tall as I am. The Unconsecrated are beginning to swarm around me. Two steps in any direction and they could reach me through the metal links. Blood hammers through my body, panic clouding my vision, making my hands shake and pound with the rhythm of my heart.
I try to look everywhere at once. And then Sister Tabitha stretches out her hand, a finger slipping out of her black tunic, to point past me toward the trees. I had not seen the gate but it is there—the same complicated set of gates that is used in the village when someone is damned into the Forest. All Sister Tabitha has to do is pull a rope that lies on the ground by her hand. The gate will open, she and the other Sisters will slip back down into their secret passage and I will be alone to face the Unconsecrated.
“What are you doing?” I try to scream but my voice is too weak, too breathy. “Why are you doing this to me?” I hiccup as I try to draw in air. The Unconsecrated are so close. Everywhere I turn they are desperate for me, writhing against the fence.
Tears pour from my eyes, drip from my chin. “Please,” I whisper, slipping back to my hands and knees, crawling toward Sister Tabitha, grasping at her black tunic. “Please don't leave me here.” I am like a child begging her mother.
“There is always a choice, Mary,” Sister Tabitha says to me, standing with her feet braced against the steps, the lower half of her body still concealed belowground. “It is what makes us human, what separates us from them.”
I look into her face, try to find a way to make this end. Her cheeks are red from the crisp air and her own fervor. There are lines at the corners of her eyes like relics, as if she once knew how to smile long ago.
My shoulders slump. I am kneeling before Sister Tabitha. I drop my head to my chest, despondent. There is nothing I can do.
She places both her hands on my head. “It is important for you to know this, Mary,” she tells me. “You must understand the importance of this choice you are making to become one of us. The Sisterhood is not something to be entered into lightly.”
I keep my eyes on the ground, staring at the dully colored fall leaves as I nod. My body shakes and I cannot control my jerking muscles. The Unconsecrated claw desperately at the fence all around me. They can smell me here.
“I must hear you say it, Mary.” Her hands slip through my hair and all I can think about is my mother and the choice she made.
“I choose to join the Sisterhood,” I tell her, desperate to get out of the clearing.
“Good,” Sister Tabitha says as she slides her hands from my head to a spot under my chin. Her grip is firm and almost painful. She tugs at me so that I am looking into her eyes, which are the dark gray green of the sky during a summer thunderstorm. “The next and only time you open your mouth to speak,” she says to me, “will be to praise our Lord.”
It takes a moment for me to understand her words—that I am safe—and then I frantically nod, the sound of the Unconsecrated crawling under my skin. She steps aside and helps me back down the stairs. Mute, I follow her down the tunnel to the cavernous room, and as we climb the stairs back up into the Cathedral I wonder at the coldness I have seen in Sister Tabitha's eyes. How her gaze seemed to sear into my soul, the chill even now seeping through me where I had only ever known the warmth of the Sisterhood.
We return to the Sanctuary of the Cathedral and the Sisters lead me down the hallway to the same room I occupied only this morning, the room with the view of the Forest and the Unconsecrated. There is now a desk under the window and a wardrobe in the corner with two black tunics hanging inside. A fire has been lit in the small stone hearth to keep the chill of impending winter away, but I cannot feel its warmth.
Before leaving, Sister Tabitha thrusts the Scripture into my hands. “When you have read it five times, you may begin to earn your privileges,” she says.
And then I am left alone again to contemplate my choices.
The Scripture is a book more than a hand's width thick, its binding worn and cracked and its pages see-through thin with crowded letters. I read at the table under the window when there is sun and when there is no sun I stare into the fire and remember my mother. I try to reconcile what I read in the Scripture with what I know about our life here and finally realize that there is no answer.
My world feels so small now, the four walls of my room the only place I am allowed unsupervised. I miss standing on the hill, wind slipping past me, and staring at the horizon wondering what, if anything, is past the Forest. Some nights, as sleep pushes in around me, my mind wanders along the fence line, to the gate guarding the forbidden path. But even in my dreams I do not step through it.
Weeks pass. As winter settles around us and the days get shorter I spend less time reading and more time thinking. I stare out my window at the stars at night and wonder if the Unconsecrated feel the change in temperature. I wonder if my mother is cold in the Forest.
Midwinter my studies are interrupted one snowy afternoon when shouts and screams echo down the hallway outside my door. I run to the window and look out, wondering if the Unconsecrated have finally breached the fences and are swarming the village. But everything in my line of sight is calm and the siren is silent. I go to the door and press my ear against it, afraid. If something has gone wrong inside the building I might be safer in my little room. I remember then that the Cathedral is also our hospital, the Sisters the keepers of the knowledge of healing.
The shouts turn into urgent voices, muffled so that I can't hear individual words. One man continues to scream, as if in pain, and I turn my back against the door and slide down until I am sitting on the floor.
I put my hands against my ears but I can still hear the pain, the voices and the fear. And then there is silence so heavy that I almost drown in it.
This night I don't sleep but instead lie under the covers listening to the Forest creaking and moaning, to the snow settling on our village and to the Sisters shuffling around, tending to their newest patient.
I think about how we are so focused on the peril presented by the Forest that we forget that the rest of life can be just as dangerous. I think about how fragile we are here—like fish in a glass bowl with darkness pressing in on every side.
he next day I am called to tend to the patient, who has been silent all night.
“We have many duties, Mary,” Sister Tabitha says to me as she leads me from my room toward the main Sanctuary and then down a hallway, up a set of narrow stairs and down another long hallway with wooden doors off either side.
“Just as you have learned to dedicate your life to the Lord, you will now learn how to care for His children. But remember,” she says, turning around and taking my chin in her cold fingers, “you still have your vow of silence. You have yet to earn your privileges.”
I nod. I do not tell her that I finished reading through the Scripture for the fifth time a week ago. I have been too busy enjoying my solitude.
She opens the door and I hear a groan that reminds me of the Unconsecrated. For a moment I'm frozen in the hallway, reliving the moment when my mother turned and her screams gave way to anonymous moans.
Sunlight streams in through a window opposite the doorway and reflects off the wood-paneled walls, a contrast to the dark cramped hall. Everything is brighter here than in my room, lighter. A small bed with white sheets and a slightly tattered quilt is pushed against the wall in the far corner and a young man thrashes, tearing at the bedding. “Water,” he begs, and Sister Tabitha turns to me and orders me to go outside and gather some clean snow in a bowl for him to suck on while she fetches new bandages.
When I return my hands are red and raw from gathering the snow. I slowly approach the bed. The patient is calm now, and when he hears my shoes against the wooden floor he turns and I see who it is.
“Travis,” I gasp. My voice feels raw in my throat and I look around quickly to make sure that Sister Tabitha has not heard me speak. I have no doubt that she would send me into the Forest if she felt the need.
“Mary,” he whispers. “Oh, Mary.” He reaches out and grabs my hand and brings it toward his cheek such that I am pulled forward and I end up stumbling and falling onto my knees next to the bed. Some of the snow drifts out of the bowl and falls around the floor but his eyes are closed and he doesn't see the flakes melt into the scarred floorboards.
His cheek burns and I slide my hand up to his forehead, the way my mother used to do when Jed and I were sick as children. I think of all the times I have brushed against Travis accidentally while playing games in the fields or walking to our lessons, and yet somehow his skin feels different now. More grown-up. More like a man and less like a boy.
I pinch some snow out of my bowl and hold my hand in front of his mouth. His tongue slips along my fingers and I feel as if my skin is thawing for the first time in my life. Suddenly, he doesn't feel like my friend but like something more and I have to force myself to remember that he is not mine to desire. He sighs and I see his body relax back into the mattress.
“Please, Mary, more,” he asks, his eyes still closed. I nod and continue to feed him snow, his breath melting into my fingers, his body so hot and dehydrated and thirsty.
“It hurts, Mary,” he whispers. “My God, it hurts so terrible.”
The urge to comfort him with words wells up in me and I want to know what has happened to him so badly, but I'm afraid to ask and risk Sister Tabitha hearing me speak and sending me away from him, never letting me see him again. I press my forehead against his cheek, my cool skin against his, and we are like that when the door opens behind us and Sister Tabitha strides in, her face tightening into a scowl.
There is silence and then Travis says, “Thank you for the prayer, Mary. It's made me feel better,” and this causes Sister Tabitha's frown to soften a bit.
“Prayer is always the best medicine,” she says and then she comes to the bed and with a tenderness I never thought possible she pulls the sheet down from Travis's body in order to examine his wounds.
Blood has stained the strips of cloth tied around his left thigh but it's old and brown, which must be a good sign. Sister Tabitha has me hold his hands as she peels back the bandages and I steel myself to see what is underneath.
I have seen such horror and such grotesqueness that it never occurred to me that I would feel light-headed and weak-kneed when I saw Travis's injury. One couldn't grow up surrounded by the Forest and not see the most dreadful sights—the Unconsecrated with their hollow skin ripped and gaping from the wounds that caused the infection, their fingers cracked and broken from clawing at the fences, limbs attached by nothing more than gristle.