Carry Me Home
Felicity woke up on less than half of the ratty Queen—size that dominated Room 8 of the Blackpeak Motel. Eddy had managed to push her nearly off the bed during the night.
She glanced at his still, sleeping figure and gingerly swung her legs off the edge of the bed. She eased herself off of the mattress and grimaced at the loud thwang! that followed.
Fel padded across the carpeted floor on the balls of her feet and pulled her timeworn Adidas gym bag out of the closet. She rummaged through it until she found a black pair of running shorts, a pink sport bra, and her beat up sneakers.
She laced up the lime green ASICS gels she had owned since high school and walked to the door, pulling it open and stepping into icy mountain wind.
She immediately slapped the door closed, swearing under her breath. He would need a shirt for this run.
Screw a shirt. She’d need a jacket.
Her feet padded along to the rhythm of Spotify, which was currently pumping Miley’s Wrecking Ball through her earbuds at about 100 decibels. Her legs carried over the relatively flat ground surrounding the motel as she surveyed the blue outlines of mountains looming up from the horizon.
These weren’t the mountains Felicity had been able to see from her house in Phoenix, big lumpy brown things that looked like a giant toddler had made them by dribbling wet sand out of his hand on the beach. Nor were they the towering white—capped peaks she had seen on a ski trip to Aspen with Eddy and his family. No, these mountains were different. Older, somehow. Their rolling backs and misty valleys seemed to sing to her, a haunting melody of a world long forgotten.
A horn blared as a truck zoomed past, splattering her with road water. Felicity slowed her pace to a walk, and then to a stop. She checked her phone. She had been running for nearly half an hour, totally zoned out. Eddy had sent her a picture – he was frowning and pointing at the empty spot in the bed beside him.
Felicity grinned and clicked the phone back into its running holster. She turned and started her way back to the motel. When she arrived she was out of breath and could feel flames in her chest. God, she hated running in the cold.
She stepped into Room 8 and closed his eyes, breathing in the warm air and smell of coffee. She let out a contented sigh and pulled off her jacket. Eddy was sitting at the kitchen table wearing the boxers he had gone to sleep in, eyes glued to whatever pulp romance he was reading this week. She kissed the top off his head and nodded at the coffee pot.
“You made coffee without burning it. I’m proud of you.”
His eyes darted up from the book and glared at her, but no words came to protest.
“Good morning smartass.”
“Good morning sleepyhead,” Felicity replied with a smile.
She strolled over to the little bathroom, jiggled the shower faucet until it sputtered out water, and then closed the door. After the shower and a cup of coffee, Felicity walked to the bedroom and picked out a pair of charcoal gray leggings. She threw on a flannel shirt and denim jacket, finished the outfit with a scarf, and walked through the door and into the motel’s rough attempt at a parking lot.
The lights were on in the main office, and Felicity thought she’d try her luck with breakfast. A little doorbell chimed as she walked into the dimly lit reception area. There was no breakfast, just a plump old woman with matted grayish hair that looked like it had been dyed red one too many times and had finally given up on color altogether. Her pin—thin lips were pursed into a tight line of exasperation.
“Do you and your husband need anything?”
Felicity held up her left hand to her, showcasing a lack of diamonds.
“Boyfriend, actually. But no, we’re fine. Everything was great.”
The woman, Phyllis Candler according to the dull nametag on her chest, grunted at this and pursed her lips even tighter, a feat Felicity would have sworn was impossible moments ago. Felicity smiled politely to her and walked over to the little display case that are typically filled with maps, tourist information, and restaurant menus. This one had only two slips of paper in it: a dusty pink flyer advertising a 50% off summer savings pack at Chet Mullins’ Tube Rentals off of State Road 19; the other was a slim map of the area’s mountains, mines, and hiking trails.
She opened up the map and spread it out on the counter. She hunted a while on the map, for what, she didn’t know. She realized she didn’t even know the name of the road they were on. It was one of those little forgotten roads that didn’t merit a name, only a number that a few truckers saw as they blew through on their way to somewhere else.
She made eye contact with the lady on the far side of the cramped office, who had taken it upon herself to appear busy with dusting.
“Could you show me where we are?” she trailed off. The lady sighed and walked over to her.
One large, grubby finger plopped down on the map, indicating their position. The road, State Road 55, drew a hard, straight line into the heart of the Appalachian Mountains before drifting off the edge of the map.
“Which way are you two headed?” Phyllis asked in her thick accent.
Felicity glanced to where the map ended, looking for their destination.
“Piney Gap. Do you know where that is? I think it’s in Virginia somewhere.”
Phyllis nodded and gestured to the counter beyond the map.
“It’s over here, but the two of you better get a move on. You’ll be wanting to get through Haralson Gap by sundown. There’s a snowstorm moving in and you don’t want to be on this side of the pass when it hits.”
That was apparently all the wisdom Phyllis Candler was inclined to share on that matter, as she promptly returned to the far side of the office and resumed her dusting. Felicity took the map from the counter and folded it up along the broken—in creases. A group of fliers tacked to the wall caught her attention, and Felicity walked over to inspect them.
There must have been twenty or thirty missing notices, dating back from the 70s. The most recent showed a girl about Felicity’s age. She was pretty and full of potential. She beamed up at the camera, sun illuminating eyes the color of rust.
Felicity turned around and nodded her thanks to Phyllis, who conspicuously ignored her. She walked back to the fading yellow door of Room 8, glancing behind her only briefly to see the ghostly fat face of Phyllis Candler watching her go through bent window blinds. She gave Felicity the creeps.
Eddy was in a towel when she came bustling in through the door. He grinned up at her with his easy—going smile.
“Did you find a good place to grab breakfast?” His tone was hopeful, as it always was when food was involved.
Felicity shook her head, still feeling a bit off from her encounter with the morning shift worker.
“Well, I’m sure there will be something up the road. Small towns are known for their breakfast joints, right?”
Felicity was eager to hit the road, and packed the car as Eddy got dressed. As she pulled the car out of the parking lot and started down the main road, Felicity could feel the stress leaving her body. She relaxed and settled down into her seat. Miles of hypnotic, monotonous road flew by the window, and Eddy was quickly fell back asleep.
Felicity rolled the dial on the old stereo, searching for a station that wasn’t playing static. Around the middle of the dial she stumbled across one – bluegrass and folk by the sound of it – that managed to fight through the buzz and pops of rural radio. Not wanting to try her luck, she decided to stay on the station. The familiar lyrics floated into the car accompanied by a flurry of tinny stringed instruments that rattled off notes at a dizzying speed. The singer seemed to wail the melody into existence.
Swing low, sweet chariot
Commin’ for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Commin’ for to carry me home
If you get there before I do
Commin’ for to carry me home
Tell all my friends that I’m a—commin’ too
Commin’ for to carry me home
Felicity found her thumb tapping out the beat of the old song mercilessly against the steering wheel. She had never liked this kind of music in Phoenix. But here, with these ancient, sentient mountains watching her, the music sounded right. She couldn’t quite explain it, but the music matched the land.
Fel’s mind went back to a line from an old film her mother had liked. Something about the hills being alive with the sound of music, or something like that. Felicity felt like she finally, and for the first time in her life, understood what that expression meant.
On and on the music played, transitioning seamlessly from one song to another, until Felicity could no longer tell which song was which. With Eddy asleep at her side, Felicity drove. Drove until the first flurry of snowfall specked its blurry mark on the windshield.
By the time Felicity stumbled upon the town, her old car was skidding around every turn on the slushy blacktop. It appeared like an apparition on the horizon – stepping through the dense mist of a winter storm in the mountains all at once.
The road traced the curve of the mountain before dumping out into a little town square like a river into a lake. That was it…the road just stopped there. Felicity checked his phone. Obviously she had missed a turn somewhere. The screen blinked up at him: GPS Signal Lost. No Service.
“Well, that’s AT&T for you,” Felicity thought sourly. She shook Eddy awake. While he stirred and stretched the dull ache of car sleep out of his limbs, Fel craned her neck forward to look up at the sky through the windshield. Not much to see in all these trees.
“Hey Eddy, check this place out.”
He hmmm’d up at her groggily before looking out of the window himself. Any response he may have been formulating was snatched off his tongue by the hangover of a midday nap.
At first glance, the square was simple, made of cobbled stone and surrounded by wooden buildings. But the more they looked at it, the more unsettling it became. First, there were the buildings. Every one of them was painted the same faded shade of black. Only the doors and shutters were a different color – dark crimson.
There were candles in the windows of most of the buildings, and the one at the far end of the square, by far the largest building of the bunch, was flooding the darkness with flickering light. Felicity looked closer at this building. It seemed to be a gathering hall of some sort, perhaps a Town Hall. As she started up towards the double doors that led into the building, she felt something grab her hand.
She jumped, spooked for some reason. It was just Eddy, grabbing her hand.
“Let’s just get out of here. Clearly this isn’t where we are supposed to be.”
Eddy looked back the way they had come. Snow was already beginning to silently erase the progress they had made. “On second thought, I think we’re stuck here for the night.”
Felicity frowned at this, not liking the idea of spending the night in this place; it felt wrong to her. But she didn’t voice a protest as Eddy opened his door and started walking away from the car. She watched him stride across the dark courtyard with a knot in her stomach. A flicker in one of the windows drew her eyes.
It was a strange little circular building just off to the side of the main building. The candle in the window wasn’t lit. She was sure it had been glowing like all the rest earlier. In Felicity’s mind, the candle stood in the window like a waxy finger pressed against lips, hushing her. She cursed her overactive imagination and nestled down into her seat, hiding from the cold air outside the car.
Eddy found getting across the little square much more difficult than he had anticipated. A layer of ice had formed under the snow, and Eddy had to plant each step very carefully to avoid falling. He managed to get to the stairs leading up to the building and began his wobbly ascent. Giant, wet blobs of white drifted noiselessly down onto him with growing fervor. Eddy supposed it would be too much to hope the ice trucks and snow plows came up this far.
When he reached the double doors, he noticed several little crosses had been carved into them, with no particular sense of order. He took hold of one of the large metal handles and pulled. The doors didn’t budge. He tried pushing the doors, to an equally final result. He tried again to open the doors, and then remembered what his father had told him about the definition of insanity. He paused for a moment and then rapped his fist against the sturdy wooden door.
KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK.
There was no answer. Eddy wasn’t keen on spending the night in a snow—covered, drafty Pontiac, but he didn’t see any people around. Then, just as Eddy was turning to leave, the doors opened with an enormous pop. A weather—beaten, pinched face, obscured by a silvery beard and long, wispy hair peered out at Eddy.
“Who’re you?” The eyes glared up at him, reminding Eddy of the wary eyes of the coyotes he had seen as a boy.
“My name is Eddy Wicks. My girlfriend and I are lost and stranded ‘cause of the snow. If there’s any way we could just impose…”
The beady eyes flicked to the Oldsmobile and lingered for a moment. The face cut Eddy off before he could finish his question.
“Get your friend and come inside here. His Worship will decide what to do with you.” The face disappeared from the doorway, leaving Eddy alone on the stoop. He turned and made his way back to the car. He grabbed their bags and opened the door for Felicity.
“I really don’t like this place, Eddy.”
Eddy waved her off. “Things are just different up here. They seemed welcoming enough.”
The pair picked their way to the main building and pushed open the heavy wooden door. This was Felicity’s first real look at the place, and she was a little taken aback. Given the height of the building, she had expected a lofted atrium. Instead, they found themselves in a cramped, dimly lit antechamber. A crimson door stood off in the back corner, and led, Eddy assumed, to whatever meeting room this building housed. The face from the doorway was nowhere to be found.
An almost chant—like singing was coming from behind the door, but Eddy couldn’t pick out the muffled words. He set the bags down and glanced around. A small stool squatted in the corner by the door. Eddy’s eyes widened as he noticed what was hanging on the wall above the stool: A sword that looked like it must have been a holdover from the Civil War.
Felicity’s whisper made Eddy turn. She was facing a wall, peering at a picture frame.
“Eddy you have to look at this. I think I’ve seen this face before. At the motel.”
Eddy crossed the room in a few steps and saw what had caught Felicity’s eye. It was an old photograph of a group of about forty men and women, all with the almost pained, unsmiling expression so common to the earliest photographs, standing on the steps of this very building.
Felicity pointed to a woman on the third row. She was wearing the same basic outfit the rest of the women were in – a drab dress buttoned up to her neck and covered by an equally colorless smock. Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun, but it was fiercely and undeniably blonde.
“Eddy I swear I saw this girl…” She was cut off by the opening of the red door in the back of the room.
Light spilled into the antechamber, followed by the face Eddy had seen earlier, this time attached to a body that stood no more than five feet high. A second man came into the room, dwarfing the first. He must have been six and a half feet tall, Felicity mused.
He, like the other, had a full beard that drifted unkempt to his chest. But his face was strikingly fair, even behind the scruff. His forehead was lined and leathery, but not in an unpleasant way. His hair, the same salt and pepper of his beard, fell to his shoulders. Two of the palest blue eyes Felicity had ever seen twinkled out at her from beneath bushy eyebrows.
“There they are your worship.”
“Thank you, Brother Tyler,” the large man said. “I can see them. You may go.” He spoke in the firm but easy tone you might use with a crazy uncle who has forgotten his manners in his old age.
Brother Tyler awkwardly bowed to the man and walked back through the red door. The man spoke again as soon as the door was closed.
“I keep telling him not to call me that, but Brother Tyler doesn’t seem to listen very well anymore.” His voice was sweet and melodious, and surprisingly gentle coming from such a rugged man. “You may call me Father John.” He spoke with a distinct non—accent that was a sharp contradiction to the heavy accent of Brother Tyler.
Felicity offered her hand and introduced herself and Eddy. John took her hand into his massive, calloused paw and shook it.
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, my friends. Now Brother Tyler told me you might be in a spot of trouble. Got turned around in these back roads, did you?” His eyes positively gleamed with laughter. “You’re not the first and you certainly won’t be the last. But you’ve picked a bad night for it. I can’t, in good conscious, send you on your way in this storm. So if you’d be so kind as to be my guests for this evening, we will see how the road is looking in the morning and set you off with a good map.”
Felicity’s icy trepidation began to thaw in the warmth of John’s smile, and she nodded her thanks.
“Now I will warn you,” said John, “that we still keep to the old ways out here. There will certainly be things here that will seem quaint to you. But that’s the life we’ve chosen, and I must ask you to respect those choices while you are here.”
Felicity nodded again, noticing that a little of the light was gone from John’s eyes. He was an exceedingly good—natured person, if she had read him right, but she certainly wouldn’t want to come face—to—face with an angry John.
“Now friends, let me invite you to dine with me and mine. Dinner started a few minutes ago, but there will be some food left if we hurry.” The twinkle was back in his eyes.
John led them through the red door and into a vast hall. The entire, cavernous room was lit by a roaring fire. Candles were in every window, suspended in chandeliers, in lanterns, and braced on the wall. It was an awe—inspiring sight. Felicity felt as though sher were stepping back in time. The women in the hall were wearing floor length black dresses with aprons or smocks covering them. Some wore bonnets, but most had their hair exposed and tied back. The men wore homespun shirts that were buttoned up to their necks, with black or dark gray vests and pants.
John called the assembled people together, and Eddy guessed there must be sixty people of all ages in the hall.
“Brothers and Sisters, may I present two travelers who will be staying the night with us. This is Eddy and Felicity. I know you will all show them the hospitality that is expected of the good flock.” The introduction was mercifully short, as neither Eddy nor Felicity particularly relished the idea of standing in front of total strangers.
The hall had three long tables, and Eddy and Felicity were led to two empty seats near the door. Dinner was served family style, with large pots, bowls, plates, and platters of food spread across the table. An elderly woman, who introduced herself as Sister Josephine, pointed out all of the dishes with a terribly shaky hand.
“Welcome, friends,” she said. Her voice was as cracked and unsteady as her hands. “We’ve got coney and dumplin stew, turkey, and pork, plus all the fixins you could want. If something looks tasty, then just ask for we’ll pass it to you.”
Eddy and Felicity both ate like survivors of a shipwreck, Felicity hadn’t realized how hungry she was until a spread of food was in front of her.
They ate and ate, until there was no room for anything else. The people sitting around them made polite conversation, asking about their trip, their destination, and their home. Eddy could see on the faces of some of these people that they had no idea where Phoenix was, or Arizona for that matter.
Felicity looked around until she found Father John. He was sitting at the middle table, and every seat near him was filled. It was clear Eddy and Felicity weren’t the only ones who could feel his innate magnetism. All of the seats, except one.
“Sister Josephine, who sits there?” Felicity pointed to the empty spot.
Sister Josephine followed her gaze and frowned.
“That’s the space reserved for the Barley Queen. That’s a very special role in the community. She’s away in meditation until she returns on Longest Night.” Sister Josephine beamed with pride. “I was Barley Queen seven times when I was younger. That’s nearly a record. This year the honor belongs to Sister Margaret.”
Felicity nodded thoughtfully. Dinner was beginning to wind down now and Father John got up. A hush fell over the expectant crowd.
“Brothers, Sisters, and new friends. Longest Night is nearly upon us!” This was met by great cheers and applause from the people listening. “Over the next 24 hours, I would offer you, my Brothers and Sisters, an opportunity to meditate on the reason why we celebrate this holy day. Tomorrow is a day of contemplation, and as such, I think we can all take the afternoon off from our labors. This does not mean, and I’m looking at you Brother Samuel, that we get to skip out on our morning chores.” An uproar of laughter followed this as a young man, Brother Samuels presumably, stood up and made a jestful show of mock outrage.
“But I would say this.” The hall became very quiet again as Father John held out his hands. “Tomorrow night when you go to sleep, and the next morning when you wake, steel your hearts for the sacrifices that are required to pass through Longest Night and into the Light of the new year.”
The crowd murmured its approval at these apparently wise words.
That seemed to conclude dinner, as most of those in the hall rose and filed out in groups, talking with each other and laughing. The few who remained stood and began clearing the tables of dishes and taking them back into what Felicity assumed was the kitchen area.
Father John strolled over to where Eddy and Felicity were sitting.
“My friends, seeing no rings or symbols of holy matrimony, may I take it that you two are not married?”
Felicity nodded affirmation.
“Ah,” said Father John, his face taking on the expression of a man who is duty—bound to deliver ill news. “Well then, I’m afraid I must insist that you two sleep separately tonight. It’s just the rules of the town, you understand. Felicity, my dear, you will have your own room in the Single Sisters’ house, and Eddy, you will have the same in the Single Brothers’ house. I hope that doesn’t put you out of sorts, but it is written in the laws of the town that a single man may not share a house with a single woman. I know that’s a bit different from how things are done where you are from, but you’ve eaten from my table and I ask you respect my rules.”
Felicity saw at once how well Father John had painted them into a corner. It was an absurd request; this was the 21st Century goddammit, and Felicity should be allowed to sleep with her boyfriend if she so chose. But she had accepted the hospitality of the meal and now felt obligated to obey his rules. It was, after all, just for one night.
Father John smiled, clearly relieved his guests had not put up a fight.
“Excellent. Eddy, I will show you to your room. Felicity, Sister Josephine will show you to yours after she has finished with the dishes.”
With that, Father John turned to leave, beckoning for Eddy to follow him. Felicity remained where she was until she felt the cold, trembling touch of Sister Josephine’s hand on her shoulder.
The Single Sister’s House was a squat little building on the right side of the square, as you looked out from the main hall. It was warm inside, as Felicity helped Sister Josephine over the threshold.
A fire crackled in a stone fireplace against the back wall, turned black with soot. The downstairs was divided into three rooms which, Sister Josephine explained, were used as the schoolhouse for the children of the community. Up the stairs, which Sister Josephine took with surprising speed, was a long corridor with doors coming off each side.
Two of these doors led to long rooms of narrow cots, which Sister Josephine explained were the lodgings of the Single Sisters. There was a little room, which belonged to Sister Josephine. The door to this room had a faded bronze placard that read “Matron.”
There was a wash room with a claw—footed tub off to the side. To the right of this was a linen closet. The hallway terminated into a door that Sister Josephine pushed open, revealing a cozy little room holding a four—poster bed and a large holly armoire. Felicity’s bags were already in the room.
“Now don’t go leaving the house tonight without someone with you. The woods are dark and treacherous to those who don’t know them. We wouldn’t want you getting lost out there. Not in this weather.”
That made sense to Felicity, who smiled and thanked Sister Josephine. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being confined here, and not necessarily for her own protection. Sister Josephine smiled at her before retiring to her room.
Felicity closed the door and surveyed her quarters. The walls were bleak – a once lovely blue floral wallpaper had faded to a drab monochrome. Heavily curtained windows stared out into the lifeless plaza below.
She plopped down on the creaking bed, laughing in spite of the unshakable feeling that something was terribly wrong. She tried to comprehend how she had ended up here, in the last place in the world she would have expected to be.
Slowly, as generally happens when we are far more tired than we realize, her thoughts drifted into dreams. She slept in her clothes, without shifting from the rather unceremonious position she had landed in. When she woke, it was to a sharp rapping on her door.
Sister Josephine led Felicity to the main hall at a remarkably fast clip. Despite her age, Josephine was still remarkably surefooted in the snow.
Felicity’s heart sank. The snow.
It must have kept snowing most of the night. Her Pontiac was covered in a foot of snow, and the road that led out of the village was totally lost amid the drifts. There would be no leaving today.
She entered the hall, passing through the big double doors into the perpetually smaller—than—anticipated antechamber. Unsure of what it was telling her to do so, Felicity glanced back at the wall where she had seen the old photograph the night before.
It was missing. She stopped and walked over to examine the slightly less discolored patch of wall where the photo had been hanging.
“What happened to the picture that was here last night?” Sister Josephine’s pleasant smile hardened on her face.
“We took it down, of course, to make room for the new one. We replace it on special occasions, and we haven’t had a Longest Night celebration this important in a very long time.”
Felicity looked at her in confusion. “What do you mean?”
A genuine smile crept over Josephine’s wrinkled face.
“Tonight is the first time we’ve had a true Barley King in twenty—five years.”
“Barley King? What’s…” Sister Josephine cut her off.
“That’s enough questions for now. We need to get in for breakfast before the men eat it all.”
And so they entered the main hall, Sister Josephine leading the way with her calm, pleasant smile, Felicity following behind with a growing sense of dread.
Her heart sank when she noticed that Eddy was nowhere in sight. She scanned the hall again, but to no avail. Her eyes fell on Father John. She strode over to him and stood across the narrow table from him, glowering at him until he acknowledged her.
“Is there something I can do for you, my dear?”
“Yes there damn well is,” she replied. “I’d like you to tell me where Eddy is.” She fumed as she stood there, cheeks flushed with a rage she couldn’t quite identify.
Father John — it was becoming apparent that the man knew how to play to a crowd — slowly glanced around the room as if looking for his missing guest. The other diners at the table were now paying full attention to this exchange.
“Your friend ignored my warning about trying to find the outhouse by himself last night. I’m afraid he had a rather nasty fall down the ravine. It wasn’t until one of the Single Brothers noticed his door was open that they realized something was wrong. By the time they found him, he had nearly frozen to death. His leg is broken, as are a couple ribs. But he is being looked after by Sister Adelaine, our most gifted healer.”
Felicity felt the world lurch beneath her feet. Eddy was hurt. She was alone in this godforsaken town now, and she would have to figure out a way to get them both out of here.
“Did you call the hospital?” This came out more as a demand than a question.
“We called the doctor in the closest town, but he won’t be able to get up the mountain for several days with this snow, I’m afraid.”
The absurdity of the situation caused Felicity’s cheeks to flush again. Damn the snow.
“Will he be alright?”
“I honestly don’t know. I’m not omniscient, after all, despite what some of my flock might believe.” There were chuckles at this. The quiet laughter only served to raise the temperature of Felicity’s cheeks from warm to scalding.
“Don’t you dare patronize me,” Felicity shouted. The entire hall fell quiet. All eyes were now on Felicity and Father John. Nobody was feigning disinterest any more.
Father John raised his hands in a disarming gesture. “It’s in God’s hands now, my dear. You must have faith.”
“Fuck your faith,” Felicity shouted. Her eyes were tinged red with fury. “Fuck your God and fuck your crazy cult. I want you to help me get my boyfriend down this mountain and to a proper hospital and I want you to do it now!”
Father John’s eyes flashed fire, but the rest of his face kept the detached, authoritative look of a man who had meted out his fair share of unpleasant news.
“Blaspheming is not a good way to begin a request for help.” Felicity was about to chip in that she was not requesting anything, rather demanding help, but something in Father John’s eyes stayed her tongue.
“Hopefully by tomorrow afternoon the snow will be melted enough to risk a trip down the mountain. We have healers of great skill who will make sure Eddy does not get worse. Will you wait until then? Or will you be as foolish as Eddy and end up getting both of you hurt and stranded?”
Felicity didn’t like this one bit. But she knew she was out of options. The rage was subsiding quickly, leaving her feeling totally drained of energy. She silently nodded her agreement, fighting back the urge to weep. She despised feeling helpless. Sister Josephine helped Felicity over to her seat from last night as the quiet murmur of conversation again filled the hall.
The rest of the meal passed without thought. Felicity battled an icy numbness creeping into her mind. All she could think about was Eddy, lying in the cold snow. She had to see him, to know he was still alive.
After breakfast, Sister Josephine informed her, came chores. For the Single Sisters, that meant cleaning the schoolhouse and basin—washing their laundry, and thoroughly cleaning the main hall after lunch.
It was during this last bit that Felicity slipped away to find Eddy. She had gleaned the location of the sick house from Sister Josephine and so found it easily enough. She slipped in through the crimson front door and squinted as her eyes adjusted to the darkness.
She walked quickly down the central corridor and found herself facing a heavy black door. She drew in a deep breath and quietly pushed.
As she stepped into the room, Felicity felt a cold hand clamp down hard on her shoulder.
A rather owlish woman dressed in all black spun Felicity around. Her talon—like grip on Felicity’s shoulder did not loosen.
“What are you doing here?”
“Erm…” Felicity stammered. “I’m looking for Eddy Wicks? He is the one who fell down the…”
“I know who he is,” the woman snapped. “And he isn’t here.”
Felicity’s heart sank. “Where is he?”
“He’s been moved to the Sanctum for preparation.”
“Preparation? For what?”
The woman’s harsh eyes faltered for a moment, but it did nothing to lessen the sharpness of her face.
“The divine healing.”
Felicity gawked at the lady. Divine healing? Were these people really that insane? Were they going to try some sort of voodoo on him?
She pulled away from the woman’s grip, backing slowly down the hallway, the crinkle—faced hag glowering after her. She thought she saw a smile on the old woman’s face.
Felicity burst out of the doors into the diminishing light of day. Time seemed to be slipping. It couldn’t be later than three o’clock, so why was the sun already going down? Tonight was Longest Night, she mused. Perhaps that had something to do with it. Or perhaps it was just the fact that, nestled in a deep valley as they were, the sun set exceptionally early.
Whatever the cause of the fading light, the phenomenon quickly took second fiddle to Felicity’s need to find Eddy. She scampered back across the courtyard, barely taking note of the Oldsmobile still parked there.
As she entered the main hall, Felicity was immediately greeted by a chastising Sister Josephine. She inquired after Felicity’s whereabouts and what she had been up to, sneaking around like that.
Felicity deflected the questions.
“I just needed a breath of fresh air. This day has been very difficult for me.”
Sister Josephine nodded sympathetically and placed a hand on her elbow.
“Tonight, it will all be better. It’s Longest Night, the night of the Barley Court, when all will come to light and be made clean.”
Felicity could see, perhaps for the first time, that Sister Josephine was dangerously close to the line of lunacy. Josephine gestured grandly to the cavernous hall. The Single Sisters had transitioned from cleaning to decorating, adorning the walls with handmade wicker crosses, draping dark crimson garlands along the tables.
“Sister Josephine? I have a question.”
The elderly babysitter — for Felicity was no longer under any delusion that she was anything but that — smiled at her keenly, waiting.
“Where is the Sanctum?”
Josephine recoiled as if she had just been struck, the smile vanishing from her face.
“How do you know about that?” Her voice had lost the softness that reminded Felicity of her Oma, replaced instead by the voice of a crone.
“I just heard it mentioned…”
“Well don’t speak of it again, don’t even think about it.”
Felicity thought she saw her minder’s eyes flinch toward the back wall, but only for a brief second. She made a mental note of that.
“Now,” Josephine said, recollecting her composure, “Father John has requested to speak to you alone. I’m not sure what about, but you should count yourself quite lucky. Many a young lady would give their arm for the attention he has given you.”
That made Felicity’s skin crawl. She shuddered as Sister Josephine patted her arm.
“He will be along shortly. I’m going to take the Sisters back to the house to get ready for tonight. I’ll lay out something a little more appropriate for you.” She gave Felicity’s outfit a once over before turning to leave. But before she could reach the door, she turned back around.
“Don’t wander off.”
There was not an ounce of softness in this command.
Felicity nodded and waited until Sister Josephine was out of the hall. Then she ran to the back wall, where she had seen Josephine look earlier. She began knocking on the wall — she had seen plenty of movies where secret doors were found this way — unsure of what she was listening for.
In reality, it wasn’t the knocking that gave the door away, but the draft. Felicity could feel a slight rush of air and followed it to a cleverly hidden crack in the wall. She pushed against it, to no avail.
She hunted for a switch or lever, hoping she would find it before Father John came in and found her poking around. There was nothing.
She had nearly given up, tears of frustration welling in her eyes, when she noticed the tile by the wall was a little more worn than the ones surrounding it.
She rushed to it and stomped down hard. A gasping rush of air that sounded almost human filled the hall as the wall swung slightly outward. Felicity pulled the door open and stepped inside, closing it behind her and blanketing herself in darkness.
Her eyes screamed as they adjusted to the sudden darkness, slapped with the burning staleness of stagnant air. She got her bearings, and realized that she was at the mouth of a tunnel that almost certainly led to that strange little circular building off to the side of the main hall.
She started down the earthen corridor, led like a moth to the flickering light of torches at the other end. The tunnel dipped downward at a deceptively steep grade. Felicity had to turn sideways and take care to avoid sliding to the bottom. The floor eventually evened out again before a sharp incline led back towards light.
She emerged cautiously into a single, circular room. Nobody was there. Nobody, that is, except Eddy Wicks.
He was lying on a table, looking far worse than Felicity had anticipated. She rushed over to him and the severity of his injuries caused the knot in her stomach to tighten. She doubled over, trying not to wretch.
When she straightened back up, she forced herself to look at him again. He was dressed in nothing but a loin wrapping that looked like deerskin. His left leg was swollen, with a nasty cut running up the side. Spidery tendrils of red infection spread from the black skin around the open wound.
Felicity’s eyes narrowed as she noticed the red circles around his ankles. She scanned his body. Covered in bruises and small lacerations, but the blood had been cleaned from the cuts. There were the same circles on his wrists. Realization dawned on her as Felicity recognized the circles from countless episodes of Criminal Minds. These were ligature marks.
Felicity’s panic turned to stone cold dread when Eddy’s eyes fluttered open. They frantically searched the room before alighting on her own. Eddy widened his eyes, and made a muted little trumpeting noise.
Those eyes were pleading with her, begging her to run, she thought. That’s when she noticed his lips. Or rather his gums. His lips had pulled back as he tried to speak, revealing a wire running through his gums like stitches, clamping his mouth shut.
Her breathing stopped. This had to be a nightmare. She turned to run, to get help, to drive to the nearest damn town and return with an army of police officers.
But Father John was standing there in the tunnel entrance, face totally devoid of emotion.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said calmly, and brought a heavy metal pipe crashing down on her skull. Felicity was vaguely aware of a thud echoing through her head and a feeling of insane warmness before blackness took her.
When she awoke, it was to pain. Her head throbbed with sharp agony. She had read somewhere that there was a momentary reprieve from pain upon waking. She didn’t know where she had read that, but she made a mental note to burn it when she found out.
Then her surroundings came flooding to her, as well as the memory of why her head hurt so bad. She sat bolt upright, causing searing white pain to erupt in her skull. Her head was still swimming as she opened her eyes.
She was sitting at the table in the main hall where she had taken all her meals since arriving in this godforsaken village. She looked down at her clothes, her eyes lagging behind the movement of her head. She was dressed in a black wool dress that reminded her of the Puritans. A pristine white apron covered her front. Those bastards…had dressed her while she was unconscious!
Felicity was snapped back to the present as her hearing came back to her, as if someone were pulling cotton balls out of her ears. Sister Josephine was leaning over to her.
“Oh good, you’re awake. I was afraid you were going to miss out on all the fun.” She spoke like a giddy schoolgirl, as if there were nothing wrong in the world.
“Jesus Christ, you’re insane!” was what she had attempted to say. What came out was little more than a groan.
“Look! Just in time! Here comes the Barley Court now!”
Thunderous applause shook through the hall as a woman dressed in white strode in. She had beautiful blonde hair pulled back in a flowing ponytail, and Felicity instantly recognized her as the older version of the mysterious woman in the photograph.
Father John stood to greet her, and planted a kiss on her lips as she approached. Sister Josephine positively cooed at this, and Felicity felt her skin crawl.
The room again erupted into applause, setting off fireworks of agony in Felicity’s skull. This time, it was three people who came into the hall — one large man on each side of…
He was being carried like a rag doll, head lolling back and crashing forward. His feet dragged the ground. Felicity moved to stand, but her legs were frozen. She was in real danger of passing out again, and Sister Josephine held out a hand to steady her.
“Now don’t you go trying to run off. You won’t get very far. We took,” she paused, searching for the right words, “precautions with you. We always do for newbloods. The drugs will wear off by tomorrow I shouldn’t wonder, but you’ll probably have a doozy of a hangover.”
Felicity shrugged the old bat’s hand off of her shoulder. She tried to move again, but with no success. Shit. They had really done a number on her.
Father John had begun addressing those gathered.
“…and so we gather together during Longest Night, as the Brothers and Sisters of our town have done since time beyond memory, to come to terms with our demons, and cleanse ourselves from our iniquities.”
His speech had taken on the lilting cadence of a practiced revival Bible-thumper.
“Today we have our beloved Barley Queen, Sister Margaret. And for the first time in nearly two decades, a Barley King, our dear friend Eddy Wicks.” Applause. “And let’s not forget our newest Sister.” All eyes turned towards Felicity. They were smiling.
Father John motioned to the two men holding Eddy. They laid him down where Felicity couldn’t see him. But she saw the men as they raised hammers and began to thwack them down, and she heard the muted trumpet screams — he had woken up, it seemed.
Felicity could feel tears streaming down her cheeks. Eddy. What had they done to him? What were they doing? Her anxious fear turned blank when she saw him. He was hoisted into the air, nailed to a homemade wooden cross. The crowd jumped to their feet and began to cheer. Felicity felt her knees go weak and her palms turn slick with clammy sweat.
Father John took the so-called Barley Queen by the hand and led her to the place where Eddy hung, groaning in pain. He pulled a Bible out from somewhere, Felicity could not be sure where, and thumbed through the pages.
“And now, as has always been our tradition, let us read from the Word of the Lord.” He paused and began to read. “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to his disciples, and said Take, eat; this is my body.”
Horror flooded Felicity as she realized what passage they were reading. Father John drew a dagger from his cloak and plunged it into Eddy’s side, spraying a fine crimson mist of blood onto the white face of Sister Margaret.
The knife cast its bloody circle, and Felicity saw Eddy scream — scream so loudly and so hard that the wires in his gums sliced through the meat of his gums, as blood and teeth burst from his mouth.
Father John seemed not to notice — he had brought a filet of Eddy’s side to Sister Margaret’s mouth. The hall was silent now, except for the screams of Eddy Wicks, but the air was buzzing with anticipation.
Sister Margaret accepted the flesh and brought it up to her lips. Felicity closed her eyes, but the sudden cheer from the crowd confirmed what she didn’t need to see. The Barley Queen had eaten her fill. Father John’s voice came back and Felicity found her eyes opening again, unable to look away from the horror of it all.
“And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”
He brought forth a simple wooden goblet and held it to Eddy’s side. Eddy’s screams had stopped, his head rolled forward. Felicity felt a rush of thanks that he had finally passed out. At least he would feel no more pain.
Once the goblet had filled with blood, Father John again brought it to the lips of Sister Margaret. She drank deeply, with little rivulets of blood flowing down the sides of her mouth, over her jaw and trickling onto the white apron covering her dress. The townspeople began to sing in unison, as if they were the Whos down in Whoville and she was the Grinch.
Something clicked inside Felicity. Some innate self preservation instinct took over. She stood, her legs somehow working through whatever dope they had put into her system. Wobbly steps carried her at a walk and then a run.
As she darted for the door, she could see Sister Margaret walking through the crowd, offering the cup to the villagers, who were drinking greedily.
She burst through the first door and collapsed onto the floor of the antechamber. She struggled to regain her feet, her legs resisting, numb with false sleep.
But she pulled herself up again, thoughts only for the Pontiac that was her only shot at safety. She always kept a key tucked away in the sun visor.
As soon as she reached the door, she threw her weight into it, sending it open with a crack. She fell again, this time landing on her face. Her fall carried her down the icy stairs and deposited her unceremoniously in the snow at their foot. She looked up at the car, and her heart sank.
It was on fire. She couldn’t hold back the rush of tears. Her last hope — gone in a bonfire. The heat blasted against her skin, drying the tears where they hung on her cheeks.
The strength left her legs and arms. She collapsed onto the ground, barely able to roll over onto her back. She saw them standing there on the top step. Sister Margaret, with Father John and Sister Josephine on either side. Sister Margaret seemed to float down the stairs, so graceful was her walk. Father John followed and walked behind Felicity, pulling her into a seated position.
She was crying wholeheartedly and without shame now, her eyes clamped shut. She felt the cup press against her lips and heard Sister Margaret’s voice for the first time. It was soft and accentless.
“Drink, my Sister.”
Felicity felt warm, thick liquid hit her lips and she immediately spit it out. But the pour from Sister Margaret’s hand was steady. It flooded into her mouth, threatening to drown her. Felicity gagged and coughed it out of her throat, but still more came rushing in to take its place. Finally, her throat gave up, and swallowed.
The cup was withdrawn and Felicity opened her eyes. She saw the entire population of the town surrounding her, watching her. They all wore the most sickening expressions of kindness. She looked at Sister Margaret, who was still standing above her, and for the first time truly saw her face. And her eyes.
Her eyes the color of rust.