Iris Crowe was in the proverbial pickle.
Another morning of eating breakfast in silence, staring at one another coldly across the table, had driven her to call and arrange to have dinner with Tommy Dolan on Friday. Another fight with Justin about Tommy Dolan had sent her out of their house and into town today.
She felt like buying something frivolous. Maybe a new dress for Friday. Not that she gave a damn about Tommy Dolan. She was honest enough with herself to admit that the real reason she kept seeing Dolan was to make Justin jealous. It was one of the few emotions other than outright anger that she got from him these days. She should feel more pathetic, begging for scraps of her brother’s attention.
But they did still need Tommy’s help with the radio ministry. And he knew about the fire, or at least he thought he did--Justin burning down his own ministry? Never.
If he only knew the truth.
A small hand fallen from under the sheet, five perfect fingers now peeled, bleeding and burnt, raw flesh mixing with the dust in the street.
Iris pushed the unbidden image of the children lying together outside the ruined building from her mind. Why couldn't Justin see that it had all been for him?
Trying to make her way into the general store, she was blocked by a woman, obviously an immigrant, frantically gesturing at a shop clerk while balancing a baby on her hip. The clerk looked angry. The woman, upset and frustrated, babbled on in Russian. The clerk spoke louder in English as if that could make the woman understand his words somehow. Though she was really in no mood for the trouble, Iris felt sorry for the young mother, remembered the feeling of panic when she’d forget an English word and her mother would scold her, remind her how important it was to blend into this new country.
It had been decades since she had spoken her native tongue with anyone but Justin, but she managed to ask, “Chto vam nuzhno?” Smiling, grateful that someone understood her, the woman explained that she was simply trying to pay for a bundle of muslin, but she did not understand what the clerk was saying to her. "How much is the fabric?" Iris asked. "She just wants to pay for it." A simple matter soon sorted out.
Without warning the woman handed the baby to Iris. "No, I don't want . . ." Iris protested too late as she found herself in possession of the squirming baby boy. His mother smiled and fished in her pockets for the money to pay the clerk. Iris held him stiffly as if she were afraid he might bite her. She watched him closely, taking in his pale blond hair and dark blue eyes. He stared up at the sky, sucking on a tiny fist, the picture of innocence.
She wondered if there was ever a time when she had been this innocent. Even in the six short years before her brother had been born, she had felt somehow different. Special. Touched. Sometimes even cursed. She could sense what others were feeling. At first she thought everyone could do this. Her mother's shocked, frightened face taught her different. So she stopped mentioning it. And felt alone until he was born. Her brother. Alexsei. He was like her. She knew from the moment she peeked into his cradle and his dark, knowing eyes met hers. Alexsei was special too. Maybe even more so than she. Her father knew this too. Her father had always frightened her. Not that he was with them very often. She never knew what it was that kept him away from home so often. But she was glad when he wasn't there. Her father was a serious man, a soldier. She remembers the only time she heard him laugh. It was when Alexsei was born. The cold sound had made her shiver, made her cringe and want to hide. But she watched her father until he gave Alexsei back to their mother. After her brother was born, her father was at home more often. He watched her brother, as if waiting for a sign. This frightened her even more. It frightened her mother too.
Mother was yelling at Father, screaming and crying and praying all in the same breathe, the way she never had before her brother was born. Irina ran to the nursery and hid, squeezed herself into a corner between a dresser and the wall. She covered her ears with her hands, trying to block out the noise of the argument downstairs. Through her tears she could see Alexsei, reflected in the glass of a mirror, flailing and screaming in his crib across the room. She pushed her hands harder against her ears, clenching her teeth and shutting her eyes tight. Willing blackness and quiet out of the turmoil. Just then the sound of breaking glass rose above the other noises. She opened her eyes to see that the mirror had shattered, carpeting the floor in countless, shining, pieces. She never knew how she had understood, but she knew that Alexsei had done this. Somehow her infant brother had broken the glass. She slowly came out of her hiding place and carefully walked across the room, broken glass crunching under her shoes with each step. She stood over him, looking into his wailing, red face. She used the sleeve of her dress to wipe her own face. Then she picked the squirming form up and held him in her arms. His crying stopped instantly, replaced by a gurgling baby laugh, his first, she was sure. As she stared down into his face, she felt the corners of her mouth turning up. She didn't hear her mother's pleading voice, the muffled sound of a fist against soft flesh, or the echo of a door slamming. As she rocked him softly in her arms, she heard one word echoing: Together.
The baby in Iris's arms squealed sharply. She shifted him in her arms and smiled down at him, trailing a finger down his soft, chubby cheek.
Her finger left a line of dark red blood against his pale skin. She gasped in horror as the baby's flesh burnt and peeled, red and raw. She closed her eyes, fighting back the bile rising in her throat. She looked back down at the now cooing infant, healthy and rosy. She practically shoved him back into his mother's arms as she ran towards the end of the street to her car.
Tears finally blinded Iris's eyes as she parked the black Ford in front of their house. She continued to grip the steering wheel, her knuckles turning white, as sobs wracked her frame. How could Justin think that she did not care, that she did not feel any guilt over her actions? That she felt no remorse? He didn't know how she still saw their faces, in the faces of every child she met. Saw each healthy, happy body turned suddenly red and raw and burnt.
No, she knew and felt exactly what she had done. Killed—sacrificed—eight innocent lives.
He didn't know how hard she prayed every night for God to understand why she had to do it.
Those weeks that he had been gone, she knew that God was punishing her. He had taken away the one thing that mattered. And now even though Justin was back safe at home and ready to embrace his destiny, he had been taken away from her again. By her own actions. By her confession.
It felt as if she had lost him forever, even though he sat across from her every evening at the dinner table and slept a room away every night. He hadn't touched her, hadn't smiled at her. Not since the night she tried to explain about the fire. He had been distant and moody, recoiling from her whenever she tried to close the growing distance between them.
He was deliberately trying to hurt her, to punish her. He was trying to hurt her when he callously offered her to Tommy Dolan, like mere chattel, and not his own flesh and blood. Her face still burned at the memory.
And now three months later, she had another secret that she was sick at the thought of telling him. God's own joke—for who else would gift Abraham with a child called laughter and ask him to butcher that blessing like livestock but a cruel trickster?
She leaned over the wheel and cried until the sobs drowned out her breathe.
She felt him wash through her mind then suddenly pull back as if burnt by the flames from the very vision he called up. He kissed her then, but it wasn't like before. For a second she thought that he had forgiven her, that he realized she had only done it for him. But this kiss wasn't like the others. He kissed her so hard she couldn't breathe. And she was afraid that this was what he meant to do. To crush the miserable life out of her. Then he pushed her away. Shoved her down onto the couch so that she lay gasping as he loomed above her. For the first time in her life, she was truly afraid of her brother. Afraid of what he might do to her in his anger and disgust. She, more than any other person, knew what Justin Crowe was capable of when overwhelmed with rage. She heard the sound of a neck breaking somewhere over the sounds of Justin's ragged breath, as he leaned over her now, pushing her roughly back into the pillows.
And yet for all her fear, part of her welcomed him. Believed that if she could just get him in her arms and inside her again, that she could make it better between them. That he would understand why she had to do it and he would forgive her of her sins. So she lay still and watched as his hands pulled at the belt of her robe and tore at the buttons on her gown. And she fought a shiver as the cold night air hitting her breasts was replaced by his warm mouth, bruising and biting at her pale skin. And she didn't fight when he wrenched up her gown and shoved her thighs apart. Tried not to struggle when his hand snaked around her throat, pinning her to the sofa. Bit her lip when he entered her suddenly. Clenched her fists and fought the urge to shove in vain against his chest as he ground himself into her again and again. And she tried not to think about the first time she had felt him move inside her. But she couldn't convince herself that this would not change everything between them.
"Justin, no. Please don't do this," she whispered hoarsely as his hand pushed harder against her throat. "Please, Alexsei." He stopped and looked up to meet her eyes. She saw something in them soften. But just as quickly it was gone and he pushed into her harder, painfully, one hand digging into her hip, holding her against him. His other hand tightening around her throat, until she couldn't breathe, couldn't scream.
Before the room started to go black, she looked into his eyes and saw only darkness.
"Irina, how could you?"
She felt the sofa shift as he stood up and straightened his clothes, fastening his pants and pulling his suspenders over his arms. He walked out of the room without looking at her again or saying another word. She felt naked and alone and empty. She closed her eyes for a moment and tried in vain to swallow the sob that tore from her throat.
"Iris?" his voice cut through the fog in her mind. "Iris, what happened?"
Justin was opening the door of the car. He was prying her fingers from the wheel and pulling her into his arms. She felt a familiar tugging at the edge of her mind. She shook her head, tried to push him away, but he stood up and pulled her to her feet with him. She stumbled, reached for something to keep herself upright.
She couldn't stop him, didn't protest, when he lifted her up and carried her into the house.
Once inside, he sat her down in his chair, knelt in front of her, an inadvertent mirror image to that night months ago.
"Iris, look at me," he pleaded. "Tell me what's wrong."
She only seemed to draw further in on herself, folding her arms around her chest.
“Did someone hurt you?" He frantically looked her over for any signs of outward injury. Seeing none, he wiped at the tears on her cheek. When she flinched away from his touch instead of leaning into it as usual, he pressed harder with his mind, determined to find out what was wrong.
She closed her eyes in response and pressed her hands against her ears, trying to stop the assault. He pulled her hands away from her face, holding them briefly in his own. Then, catching her face in his hands, he forced her to meet his gaze.
Too exhausted to fight him any longer, Iris sighed and leaned her forehead against her brother's, letting all her defenses fall away.
Glass shining on the floor—laughter—choking, swallowing water—fighting to find the surface out of the blackness—the snap of a neck, twisted, unnatural—"Are you a man of God?"—lights from the Ferris wheel—lips that taste like a candied apple—a chicken's neck grinding between the Geek's teeth—"We're in this together"—biting her lip to silence a moan—"Irina"—leather licking against flesh, drawing blood—"Faith and action"—spark of a struck match—little faces—soft hands—the smell of burnt flesh—falling, broken, on their knees—"Pray to God but row for shore"—empty room—forsaken—Tommy Dolan kissing her goodnight—"But Iris, the children . . ."—gasping for breath, pressed down by his weight—black, empty eyes—"Irina, how could you?"—the crowd gathering—“The clock is ticking"—Sick, so sick, lying beside the tub—"Please, God, no. It's not possible . . ."
He jerked away from her, eyes wide in disbelief.
"No . . ."
She nodded weakly and stood up. "I don't know how it's even possible. But I'll," she stammered. "I can go away. Go to another town until . . ." She stopped, trying desperately to read his emotions, but his face was blank and his mind closed off. She choked out the response she’d rehearsed, the promise to a higher power. "I won't let it interfere with your ministry."
He didn't answer, only sunk back against the chair.
When she finally felt his hand against her hip, she started, took an unsteady step away from him despite her resolve.
With both hands, he pulled her towards him, until his face was inches from her body. She looked down into a face writ with vulnerability, not anger or disgust. He had worn the same expression the night he told her of his plans to build a church for the migrants.
"Promise me you never let him touch you." Plea or threat, his fingers were bruising through her dress.
"I've told you everything that happened. You saw it. You know I wouldn't . . ." Her words were cut off as he suddenly pulled her against him, burying his face in her dress, against her abdomen.
His hands clutched at her lower back, as his body shook. "You won't leave."
She ran her hands through his hair, pulling him closer in answer.
We're in this together.
He stood in front of an ancient, gnarled tree in the desert. He looked down at his hands and saw thick black blood pouring out of his palms. Her blood on his hands—in his veins. She was screaming in pain, her red hair sticking to her neck and forehead. Lines of bright red blood curved down her thighs. He looked down at the infant in his arms. It opened its eyes. Dark, black, soulless eyes.
He sat up in bed, chest heaving, drenched in sweat. He felt Iris's hands, cool on his skin, soothing across his face and chest. "Shhh." She kissed his face, his neck. Trailed her fingers down his shoulder, traced the thin lines of scars across his back. "Shhh. It was only a dream."
He let her pull him back down into the bed, let her gather him into the familiar comfort of her arms.
How many times in their life had she done this, he wondered? Except this time when he relaxed into her embrace, he met naked skin, slick with sweat. Moving over her, he kissed her throat; he tasted the dip above her collarbone. Let his hands roam over her body. Made love to her slowly. Baptized. Letting every moan, every gasp, every shudder, wash away all thoughts of sin, of inescapable destiny.
After Iris had fallen asleep again, hugged against his chest, Justin brushed his palm across the slope of her hip, then downward to rest his left hand carefully over the place where his child was growing.
He whispered into the dark: "A shining kingdom on a hill to inherit."
Justin watched as the morning sun shining through the lace curtains cast strange patterns across Iris's skin, almost like the tangled branches of a tree against the pale vista of her back. He ran his fingers along the shadows until she stirred.
As she woke up, he watched with amusement as Iris took in her surroundings and slowly realized where she was. Color flooding her cheeks, she looked at him with a weak smile, pulling the sheet up around her.
It was always the same with them in the light of morning. Blushes and guilt. And shame and silence. Prayer and punishment. But now he didn't care. Knowledge of his destiny, of his inescapable part in the divine plan had put it into perspective. Adultery. Incest. Ugly words, but they had lost their sting.
Now he watched her without remorse. He watched as she slid out of bed wrapped in the sheet and found her slip from the night before. Watched as she pulled it over her head and smoothed it down her body. Justin knew that Iris was avoiding meeting his eyes with her own. But he could tell that she was aware of his eyes on her body. Her watched as her breasts rose and fell, tremulously with each breath.
But no matter how she pretended, the proof of their actions were written across her body. Undeniable proof growing inside her.
She glanced back over at him briefly, biting at her lip, as if she were trying to make some decision. She looked away again then retreated through the door.
"After lunch I want to show you where we will build our new church," Justin called from the bed as she hurried to her own room. He lay in the bed for a moment and ran his hand over the place she had left empty, over the sheets that were still warm from her body. He frowned for a moment, then sat up and crossed the room to pull on his robe.
He had let her play their usual game long enough.
Finding the door ajar, he slipped into her room without knocking, standing unnoticed at the doorway.
Iris stood in front of the mirror, intent on her reflection. Her fingers brushed against a purple bruise on her throat, before her hands came to rest on her abdomen.
She didn't flinch as his hand suddenly covered hers, didn't seem surprised as his larger body loomed behind her, draping her in his shadow. Her eyes darted up to the mirror to meet his. Justin felt her body lean into his and he bent to kiss her neck at the spot where her fingers had just been. His lips aggravated the bruise until she sighed; he teased the sensitive flesh with his teeth until she hissed, an unavoidable side effect.
As Iris sat in front of her vanity pinning up her hair, her attention was drawn reluctantly once again to the dark figure stalking past her doorway. It was no more than a brief shadow in the cold reflection of the mirror but her skin pricked at the sight of it.
She glanced down at her watch—that was the third time Justin had walked past in less than half an hour. She pursed her lips and closed her eyes, trying to collect herself. Opening her eyes and staring at her reflection, she leaned towards the mirror to fuss with the collar of her dress, checking once again to see that it hid the angry bruise at the base of her throat. The others at least were safely secreted away beneath her dress. When she heard Justin's footsteps retreating down the stairs, Iris stood up and squared her shoulders.
She followed the sounds of movement through the living room and into the kitchen until she found her brother. Justin stood nursing a cup of coffee, leaning against the counter. Despite his air of indifference, she could tell by the set of his shoulders that he was upset with her. He didn't speak or look at her, made no effort to even acknowledge that she had come into the room. Laying her coat across the nearest chair, she crossed her arms over her chest and stared at him, waiting for some reaction. Finally, when none was forthcoming, she sighed in irritation.
Justin looked up then, a certain smugness creeping across his features, as if he were one move away from declaring checkmate.
"You are being childish," Iris scolded. She knew that more and more Justin hated to be reminded of her status as elder sibling and the last threads of power that entailed between them.
He merely continued to stare silently at her, ignoring her biting words.
"If you wanted me to cancel, you should have told me earlier," she stated matter-of-factly. "He's going to be here anytime now."
Justin took another slow sip of coffee, watching her over the mug all the while.
Iris shook her head and set her jaw stubbornly. She stalked out of the kitchen and into the living room to wait for her "date"—Tommy Dolan.
She had honestly forgotten about dinner with Tommy until a couple of hours earlier and by then it was too late to cancel. Maybe she would have even claimed to be ill when he came to pick her up, but she felt the unfamiliar need to get out of the house to clear her head. She begrudgingly admitted that it was really Justin that she needed to get away from for a few hours.
So much had happened in the short span of just 24 hours—Justin knew that she was carrying his child, had accepted it with elation instead of fury—they had come together once again, all through the night and even in the forbidden light of morning. Something had changed between them—something welcome, yet still unsettling. Some unspoken admission between them that threatened to change everything for better or for worse.
After lunch he had driven her outside of town, had shown her the site for the new church—their temple—the one they would build together. His eyes had glowed with a wondrous excitement that she hadn't seen since before the fire. The feeling of awe that he inspired—the one that she had feared lost—came flooding back to her as she watched him; her love for him burned through her again, until she was sure that he would be able to feel it as he took her hand in his and showed her the glorious sight before them.
The sharp ringing of the doorbell interrupted Iris's thoughts. She started towards the door only to see that Justin was already opening it, smiling through the screen at Tommy Dolan. Iris recognized that smile as the one her brother often wore when dealing with frustrating members of his church board.
Oblivious, Tommy smiled broadly at Justin. "Hi there, Brother Justin." Tommy raised his eyebrows in anticipation as he asked, "Is Iris ready?"
Justin's smile faded as he stared down at the other man. "Dolan." He looked over his shoulder at Iris, noting first her nervous expression, then letting his gaze fall to the places that the midnight blue material of her dress hugged close to her figure. His eyes narrowed. He looked back to Tommy. An awkward beat passed before Justin stepped away from the door and allowed Tommy to enter. "Yes, I believe she is."
Tommy grinned as he saw Iris standing in the living room. "Iris," he called as he walked over to her, "you look just wonderful." Iris smiled at him but quickly glanced again to her brother, who was standing now at her side. Sensing but not understanding the tension between the siblings, Tommy looked from Iris to Justin. He took a step closer to Iris. "Well, if you're ready, we should get going," Tommy suggested, holding out his arm in invitation.
Justin's lips thinned and he left the room without another word.
Iris smiled, taking Tommy's arm, trying to cover her discomfort. "Oh, my coat—just a second," she said, hurrying towards the kitchen. She gasped as she entered the kitchen and saw Justin standing with her coat in hand. She smiled faintly up at him and held out her hand to take it from him. Ignoring her, Justin moved to stand behind her, holding open the coat as she slid her arms into it. His hand brushed against the back of her neck to lift from beneath the wool collar the soft red strands that always escaped to curl across her skin. She couldn’t stop the sigh that escaped at his possessive gesture. She froze as she felt his breath at her ear, his lips barely grazing her skin.
"Have a nice time, dear," he whispered.
She turned to face him but he was already disappearing into his study, leaving her staring after him in confusion.
Dinner had actually been—pleasant, Iris thought as she stared out at the passing stars in the night sky as Tommy drove her home. She had been surprised at how hungry she was when her food arrived. She had eaten like a famished person, much to Tommy's amusement. A small smile threatened the corner of her mouth now as she thought of the reasons for her appetite. And Tommy had been charming as always. He had done most of the talking, entertaining her with stories about the unusual people he met on the road doing his show, trying to shock her with bits of juicy Hollywood gossip. Iris traced her index finger along the cool glass of the window beside her and glanced over at Tommy. Somehow he had known to avoid talking about her brother's radio ministry tonight. She was grateful for that.
It took Iris a moment to realize that the car had stopped. She looked around, expecting to see her street but saw only darkness surrounding them. She turned back to Tommy, confusion plain in her face.
Tommy turned towards her, laying his arm across the back of the seat as he smiled tenderly at her. Iris watched each of his movements carefully, her eyes taking on a steely, guarded edge. When he leaned closer to her, she resisted the urge to retreat instinctively back against her door. Tommy looked away from her, seeming to notice the stars in the clear sky for the first time that night. "Iris, there's something I should tell you."
She made no answer, just studied his face closely.
"It's a sin to lie, right?" he asked.
"Then I've sinned," he admitted, looking back at her for her reaction.
She drew a deep breath. "We all have," she answered sincerely, her hand falling from the window to her lap.
"That we have," he chuckled. "But—you see, I've lied to your brother." Iris's eyes narrowed defensively at the mention of Justin. She drew herself up, straightening her posture.
"When he asked me," Tommy continued, looking into her eyes, "When Brother Justin asked me that day if I wanted you—I lied." His left hand came to rest gingerly on her knee. She stared down detachedly at his fingers laying across the dark fabric. "I do want you, Iris." He waited for her reaction.
Her fingers wondered underneath her collar to find the small tender spot at her throat, one finger kneading into it, causing a clarifying twinge of pain. "Lust is a sin."
"But it's not just lust."
She looked sharply up at him; her eyes widening as she realized what he was saying. Her mouth opened as if she wanted to speak, but no words came out. Tommy leaned over and brushed his lips against hers. She put her hand against his chest and pushed him back. "I'm flattered, really I am," she finally began, her voice sounding alien even to her, "but I can't. It's just not right." She turned her shoulder to him and looked back out the window. "I'm sorry—please just take me home now." Tense silence fell over the car and held sway until they found themselves once again in front of the house she shared with her brother.
"Shit," Tommy mumbled under his breath as he watched Iris open her door and get out without speaking. "Iris!" Tommy called out the window. Without looking back, she shook her head "no" and hurried up the steps.
Iris closed the door behind her and leaned her back against it, bringing her hands to her chest, palms together as if in prayer.
"Did you have a nice time, dear?"
She followed the sound of his voice to see Justin sitting in his chair, dressed in his pajamas and robe, reading a newspaper spread out before him.
She ran her hand across her forehead. "I suppose so," she answered, willing her voice to sound indifferent. She didn't want to face him. She looked towards the stairs, but the rattle of the newspaper brought her attention back to Justin.
He folded the paper neatly and tossed it into the floor beside his chair. He took off his reading glasses and rubbed at the bridge of his nose, before focusing his eyes intently on her. Iris could feel him pulling at her from across the room. She took off her coat and hung it on the rack before nervously walking over to sit in her usual spot on the couch.
"No, come here," he said. Swallowing, her throat suddenly gone dry, Iris studied the pattern on the arm of the couch for a moment before she brought herself to reluctantly wait beside his chair. He caught her wrist in his hand, drawing her closer to him, until she stood against his knees. He moved his hands to her hips and pulled her down into his lap. Iris flushed, and looked anxiously over at the window to the street, noticing that the curtains were not drawn and that anyone passing by could see them. Anticipating her protest, Justin wrapped his arm around her waist and held her to him. "Now," he said, shifting her hips to a more comfortable position and settling his other hand on her thigh, "tell me all about your date."
Iris was afraid to find out where this conversation was going. "There's nothing to tell really."
"Oh, come now. There must be something." Iris felt chilled by the eerie calm in his voice. Her eyes focused on the curve of his lips as he smiled down at her. She was reminded suddenly of that story Rose used to tell them about the wolf who wore sheep's clothing.
"We had dinner," she answered finally.
"At that new place that just opened outside of town."
He looked expectantly at her. "And?"
"We talked and had dinner."
"What did you talk about?" he questioned
"You keep saying that." He looked at her, waiting.
"We talked about his show mostly—and Los Angeles," Iris said with a frustrated sigh.
"And after dinner? What did you do then?"
"He drove me home." As soon as she had spoken, Iris knew that she had answered too quickly. Justin's eyes bore suspiciously into hers.
"Nothing else, then?"
He bent his head and kissed her on the forehead, letting his lips linger on her skin. "Don't lie to me, 'Ira."
Her mouth moved but no sound came out for a moment as she tried to figure out what he wanted to hear. "Justin, why?" She tried to pull away from him but he held her fast. "Why are you doing this?"
He didn't answer, just held her tighter. "You know he doesn't—matter," she said, her voice on the edge of breaking.
"Tell me about the drive home," Justin commanded evenly, his hand tracing slow, distracting circles on her thigh.
"Justin," she pleaded but knew it was no use to try to hide anything from him. "He stopped the car and we talked—He said that he lied that day. When you asked if he wanted me." Her cheeks burned, a knot of anger still at the back of her throat as she recalled the humiliation of that scene. "And he kissed me again." Iris felt Justin's hand on her leg stop its careless circuits, as he clenched the material of her dress into his fist. She took a small measure of satisfaction at knowing her blow had hit home.
The persistent ticking of the hall clock seemed to grow louder over the next few minutes, drawing attention to the uncomfortable silence that had fallen between them.
"I don't want you to see him anymore." The mocking objectivity that had cloaked his voice was gone.
Looking back at her brother, Iris almost expected to see the wide-eyed little Alexei who had hovered behind her that night at the river, clinging to her skirts, instead of the intimidating Brother Justin Crowe he had become over the past few months. In that instant Iris realized that the ever-shifting tide of control had drifted back to her. She relaxed into him, resting her head on his chest, listening to the familiar rhythm of his heart beat, sure that it was once again beating in time with her own. She laid her hand over his larger one, lacing her fingers through his. "I'm not planning to."
"She was sick last week and she's been sick three mornings in a row this week."
Norman Balthus listened as the young woman, Eleanor's niece, he believed, chattered on, obviously anxious to tattle about her employer. Normally, he wouldn't have listened to such, but he had been concerned about Iris lately too. She just hadn't been herself. Besides looking tired and drawn over the past few weeks, she had been quiet and, well, sometimes downright snappish when she did talk.
"It's none of my business," the girl went on. "But I know what makes a woman sick like that in the mornings. I have five kids of my own and I was sick just like that with every one of them—"
That had Norman's attention. But surely not Iris.
"Becky!" Eleanor scolded, hurrying across the room to join them. "That's enough of that."
Eleanor smiled at Norman nervously, trying to cover her embarrassment. "Sorry, Reverend."
She looked back at Becky sternly. "Shame on you for gossiping about Miss Iris like that." Eleanor hustled the girl out of the room. "Go on back into the kitchen and finish that packing."
The phrase "speak of the devil" was on the tip of Norman's tongue as Iris chose that moment to come down the stairs, looking pale but put together.
"Oh," Eleanor looked flustered, wondering how much Iris had heard. She liked Miss Crowe. The Crowes had been awfully nice to her and her family when they were down on their luck. "Feeling better, Miss Iris?" she ventured.
Iris nodded, "Yes. Thank you, Eleanor."
"We're almost finished with the china."
"Good." With a smile, Eleanor went back to work, satisfied that Miss Iris hadn't been offended by anything she might have overheard.
"I'm sorry you had to wait, Norman. Just let me find my gloves and I'll be ready."
Norman studied his adopted daughter as she rifled through a drawer. He couldn't shake what that girl had said. "So you haven't been feeling well lately?"
"No," she said offhandedly. "Ah-ha, here they are," she said working her fingers into the dark gloves. She noticed that Norman was staring at her. She smiled to herself. That was his concerned face. The one he had worn when she had come down with the mumps at 14, and the same one he had years later as he waved goodbye to his children on the train platform as they headed off to St. Paul. "I'm fine. I think it's just some sort of stomach flu," she reassured.
"Are you sure you are up to the luncheon today?" he asked.
"Yes. Stop worrying. I'll be fine."
"Good." He helped her on with her coat and followed her outside to his car. He was sure it was nothing. Just a stomach flu like she said. Iris was the one he never had to worry about. Justin, well, Justin was concerning him more and more every day with his fanatical ways, charging straight ahead with that radio ministry no matter what the church board said. . .
"Say, little girl, are you still seeing that radio fellow? Dolan, wasn't it?"
"No," she asked with a laugh as he opened the car door for her. "Why do you ask?"
The tree stood black and solitary against the roiling crimson sky. She struggled to make her way up the hill, grasping and clawing at handfuls of dirt. The rain bit at her skin, and clouded her eyes. Something was bleeding, clotted and dark. It broke apart in her fingers, smearing them scarlet. It came thicker now. A face but not a face, smooth and white and hard like a doll's. The face laughing without moving as it plunged a dagger into the tree. It cries out as its heart is pierced, frantic, mewling cries .
"Miss Iris? Miss Iris, it’s Brother Justin on the phone for you."
Eleanor's weathered face hovered in front of hers. Iris brought her hand to her throat to calm her breathing.
"I'm sorry. I must have dosed off." She shuddered, half remembering the nightmare she'd been having, and was truly thankful to Eleanor for waking her up from it.
"Hello?" she called quietly into the receiver, glancing around to make sure she was alone in the hallway.
She smiled, "Hi." It was good to hear his voice. He'd left Sunday night with Tommy Dolan for a week of meetings with sponsors and producers in L.A. It was only Tuesday. And while she had actually looked forward to a few days all to herself . . . it was good to hear his voice.
"I'm glad you called. The phone woke me up from the worst dream," she explained, rubbing at her cheek sleepily. "I can't really remember, just strange." She ran a finger idly down the side of the phone and grimaced distastefully at the dust she found. "It's the same I guess . . . I wouldn't say it's any worse . . . I am fine, really," she scolded halfheartedly. "You sound like Norman." She ran her hand across the velvety material of her robe, just below the tie and smiled. "Hmmm, that's fine too." She heard Eleanor shuffling around. "Oh, it was yesterday . . . I'm glad things are going so good . . . Okay. . . Goodnight, Justin."
A white-blonde head peeked out of the dining room at her. "How's Brother Justin?"
"Fine. He's just fine," Iris smiled back. "Why don't we call it a night?"
"You've lost weight," Justin observed. He slid his fingers across her ribs, mapping the contours of each one, to make his point, amazed as ever at how large and gangly his hand looked against the delicate bones.
Iris twitched at the tickling sensation and swatted at his hand, avoiding the question.
Her hand tangled in Justin's hair as his lips replaced his fingers.
"I'm no expert in these matters . . ." She opened her eyes to see his face hovering above hers now, his head propped on his elbow. "But shouldn't you be gaining weight instead of losing it?"
She huffed, there was no other way to describe it, and tugged the sheet up over her.
Justin would have laughed at the childish gesture but—she looked ill. Dark circles under her eyes, in sharp contrast to her blanched skin. Skin that felt clammy where her thigh lay next to his. She shivered and he watched as her hand clutched the sheet with a tremor.
"Is something wrong besides the morning sickness?"
"I can't sleep," she said wearily. "I-I keep having these awful . . . nightmares. But they don't feel like dreams—"
"They feel real," he finished. Real like the tight knot of guilt burning in his chest, and real like the decision that had to be made soon.
She nodded, "They feel like drowning."
She laughed, then grimaced as he shifted over her, draping his torso across hers and groping at the floor beside the bed.
"Ughh, you haven't lost any weight, Justin Crowe," she pushed at his shoulder.
She felt him laugh, but couldn't see his face. "What are you doing?"
He "reappeared" holding a clump of white cotton and lace. "Hold up your arms." She did as he said and he tugged her nightgown over her head and arms in a strange reversal of their childhood positions.
She relaxed a little as he gathered her to him, his chest against her back, curling protectively around her.
Her father's hand, grabbing her by the arm, encircles it completely, leaving a powdery purple ring in its place. His hand—her hand. Plunging, stabbing. Lightening split the tree and broke apart the sky. Spatters of blood down her arms, like bruises, like burns. The tree, the sky—she cries out. Drowned out by a baby's choking fury ringing out over the valley.
She jolted awake and looked wildly about the darkened room. The sound of her name gradually replaced the sound of the crying, thumping in her ears. He was kissing her face, her neck, brushing his hands over her damp chest, down her arms. Gestures she had taught him—touches meant to soothe and distract. Face against his neck, she mumbled into his pulse something about father—the tree—blood.
Iris blinked against the light shining in her eyes—the glint from a flashbulb reflecting in the sun. She stood amongst the enrapt crowd listening to Justin's voice vibrating through the once empty valley, dedicating the new temple in memory of the children who died, the martyrs she had founded their ministry on. She met his eyes as he recited their names. Blue eyes burning into hers. "Irina, how could you?" Swallowed up by black.
The light burnt sharply into her pupils. She tried to close her eyes; something held them open. Iris shook her head and squinted up into a blurry face. "Ahh, Miss Crowe, can you hear me?"
Everything around her, sterile and white and cold.
"Miss Crowe. You fainted. You are at the hospital now. I am Doctor Martin. You were unconscious for a few hours. I need you to look at me. Try to focus, Miss Crowe."
"Now, Miss Crowe, care to tell me how you got in this state?" the doctor said patronizingly.
Iris stared at him in disbelief. "I beg your pardon?"
Confusion writ across his face as it had hers. "Oh, no. Not that state," he chuckled as if it were funny. "But I know about that one too. How did you get so run down and exhausted that you collapsed?"
"I haven't been feeling well . . ."
"Obviously." More humor.
"And I haven't been able to sleep," she continued. "I've been busy helping with the move—of the church and our house."
"I see. Now about that other state, you know you should take better care of yourself . . ."
"And just what are you implying, Norman?"
A nurse looked up from her station to glare at Justin's raised voice.
"Calm down. I'm not implying anything. I'm asking you if there was something going on between that Dolan man and Iris . . . maybe while you were gone?"
"I know she keeps saying that it was just a bug, but if he took advantage of her—"
"If my sister says this is just a passing illness, then I believe her," he said sternly. "After all, you raised us better than that, Norman." Norman missed the smirk that played across Justin's mouth as he turned and headed for the nurse's station to see when Iris was being released.
Norman insisted on seeing them home. He watched Iris closely, with a mixture of concern and suspicion that grated on Justin's already frayed nerves. Iris herself seemed too exhausted to notice. After she was tucked away in her room to rest, Norman left with a weighted look and a heavy sigh.
Now Justin paused at her door, laying his palm flat against the wood, steeling himself for what he was about to do. He breathed deeply and rubbed at the tension in his neck before entering.
Iris was sitting up in bed propped against the headboard, toying with the edge of the quilt that covered her lap. Noting that the color was slowly returning to her face, Justin smiled softly at her, before beginning to pace around the room.
"Justin, what's wrong?" she asked apprehensively. She knew him well enough to know that he was struggling with something.
"This isn't going to work, Iris," he said quietly, pausing, seemingly frozen in the middle of the room.
Confusion marred her forehead. "What do you mean?" He finally met her eyes and held them, communicating as always so much without saying a word. Her lips parted and she squared her jaw. "We have to make it work."
"I wish there was another way," he continued, beginning to pace again. "I thought we could hide it—but today proves we can't."
"And just what are you suggesting?" she asked, struggling to keep the hint of fear and growing anger out of her voice. She had offered to go away and he had demanded she stay, had upset their status quo until there was no going back—at least for her.
He stepped towards the window and moved the curtain, looking out into the street.
"I think you should marry Tommy Dolan." The words hung in the air between them.
"What?" she asked finally, almost laughing in her disbelief.
He let the curtain trail from his hand and looked down at the floor, shaking his head.
"Have you lost your mind, Justin?" She made no attempt to hide the anger welling up in her now.
"There isn't any other way, Iris," he answered sternly, his voice taking on an irritated edge. His eyes flashed up to meet hers, boring into her.
She faced down his stare, narrowing her eyes in concentration. "You're serious?" She still couldn't quite believe what he was asking her to do. But as he continued to look intently at her, she knew that he had made up his mind. Panic overwhelmed her. Iris threw off the quilt and came to stand next to him, grasping his arm. "Do you think you can just give me away?" Her words were thick with hurt and resentment.
"You will marry him."
"No." She stared up at him, breathing hard, trying to find some way to convince him. Finally, she leaned in close to him and spoke. "You won't mind another man touching me, making love to me?" He looked away from her, focusing his gaze on the cross hanging over the bed. "No, look me in the eyes. Look at me and tell me, Alexsei." At the sound of his name, he looked back at her, clenching his jaw with emotion. "Tell me you won't mind that another man calls your child his own."
He took her roughly by the shoulders, causing her to gasp in surprise, and commanded, "You will do as I say." He watched as she flinched at his tone. He knew that his hands were hurting her, that they would leave bruises in their wake. Justin closed his eyes and swallowed. When we spoke again, his voice had softened and his grasp turned to a caress, running his hands down her arms. "Please, Irina. Just do what I'm asking."
She stepped back away from him, out of his reach and covered her eyes with her hand.
He watched as her chest rose and fell unsteadily and knew that she was close to tears.
"Get out," she whispered.
He tried to touch her arm, wanted suddenly more than anything to draw her into his arms, but she shook off his touch and retreated farther from him, shaking her head.
He turned and left, slamming the door behind him, leaving her alone to collapse on the bed, hot tears burning down her cheeks.
"So am I to gather that congratulations are in order?" Justin called cheerfully, settling down into his chair.
Iris, appearing every inch the grateful woman who had just been offered a chance at salvaging her reputation, smiled and waved again as Tommy got into his car.
As she splayed her fingers against the door and gave it an exaggerated push closed, the smile lingered on her lips but something else had surfaced in her eyes.
She turned and studied her brother, sitting there. Looking at her expectantly, nonplussed, as if he had just asked her no more than had the mail come yet.
Her anger was palpable, like particles of dust floating in slats of light, foreign and noxious, yet impossible not to swallow in your next breath, and Justin was not unaffected by it.
"What did you do to him? To make him believe that we—" She asked sounding strangely calm as she crossed the room. Justin quirked his mouth, about to retort, but she cut him off. "No," she shook her head and bent to clear up the glasses from the coffee table. "No, I don't think I want to know after all."
Justin tapped the back of his finger against his lips. "I'm sure Norman will be able to perform the ceremony at the end of the week," he called out to her over the faint sound of the running tap. He smiled smugly at the heavy sound of her footsteps crossing the kitchen tiles. Now came the outburst—no more of this quiet, seething martyrdom she favored of late.
But instead of the expected curse in their mother tongue, came her words warm at his ear, her mouth almost touching his skin—"Norman? Don't you want to do the honors yourself?"
Pleased with the nearly imperceptible twitch in Justin's jaw, Iris rose from beside him, the nails of her right hand kneaded into the rough sleeve of his jacket at his forearm, the other hand—trailing feather light along the nape of his neck.
Iris sat awkwardly on the side of her bed, loosening her robe and shrugging her shoulders to let it fall behind her. She felt Tommy's hand caress her shoulder, his fingers toying with the strap of her gown—felt him brush her hair away from her neck and kiss her softly in its wake. Despite the obvious tenderness in the gesture, she fought the urge to cringe away from his touch. She closed her eyes, steeling herself as his kisses became more insistent against her skin.
She had every intention of letting Tommy make love to her. She wanted Justin to hear. Every creak of the mattress, every moan, every sigh. To hear what he had done.
But when Tommy's hand fell to her breast, it felt painfully alien. She couldn't, not yet. "Tommy." He only mumbled against her ear, nipping with his teeth at her earlobe. "Tommy, don't." She shrugged away from him and turned her head to face him. "I can't." Confusion knit his brow, only to be replaced by playful determination as he bent to kiss her shoulder again. She placed her hand on the side of his face to make him look at her. "I just can't tonight."
"Why not? We are married now," he said and kissed her just below her ear. "And besides," he whispered, sliding his hand down her stomach, "it's not as if we haven't done this before." Guilt burnt at the back of her throat as she was struck once again at how thoroughly Justin had manipulated Tommy's mind.
"I know and we will. I promise," she cajoled, taking his hand in hers and moving it to lie between them. "But not tonight, not here."
He looked at her, a confused frown replacing his usual boyish grin.
"Justin is right down the hall," she explained, surprised that her spiteful resolve to punish her brother had deserted her so completely.
He grinned again and laughed. "We can be quiet—or at least we can try."
Her eyes widened unconsciously at the insinuation. "It wouldn't be right," she insisted.
"I wouldn't feel right," she said finally. "Please just do this for me."
He looked at her then shook his head ruefully. "Whatever makes you happy."
"Thank you," she said and meant it. She leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the lips.
He groaned, as she pulled away from him. "Are you sure?" he laughed.
"Yes," she answered, laughing half-heartedly along with him.
"Okay, okay," he said before flopping back in the bed and rolling over to the other side to make room for her. "I'm sorry we had to postpone our trip until tomorrow afternoon. But better the engineer caught the problem with the radio towers now than after they had actually gone up."
"Yes, I suppose it is." She turned off the lamp and crawled into bed.
"And when we come home next week, we'll be in the new house . . ."
Iris lay stiffly, unable to relax in the familiar surroundings. She was glad it was dark so that Tommy couldn't see her flinch when his arm fell over her. Since childhood, she had only ever slept with one person next to her—the tickle of Alexsei's soft hair against her chin as he tucked his head into her neck and clung to her after a nightmare-only ever felt the weight of one person's arm draped possessively across her—Justin drawing her close in the night, his thumb brushing sleepily against the underside of her breast.
She listened to the unfamiliar sounds of Tommy's breathing until she knew he had fallen asleep. She still dreaded falling into the nightmare world of her dreams, but tonight she worried selfishly over her own future and not the dark destiny of Justin and their child.
Finally, she carefully rose from the bed and slipped quietly from the room—not even bothering to find her robe in the dark, ignoring the chill that crept across her skin.
She walked to Justin's door and paused, considering, then, slipped down the stairs like a resolute specter, to make her way to the living room.
Just as she knew she would, Iris found her brother sitting in his chair—still dressed in his white shirt and suspenders. A single lamp burnt beside him, faintly illuminating the room and casting ominous shadows against the walls.
A book lay open in his lap but Justin's face was buried in his hand. She hovered in the doorway willing him to look at her.
As bidden, he glanced up and saw her standing in the shadows.
Barefoot, she walked silently across the cold floor to stand in front of him, between his open knees. The sound of their breathing filled the room like the melody of a familiar song that fades forgotten into the background.
His eyes flickered down to where her thigh brushed against his, before rising to stare at her as if expecting to see a stranger in his sister's place. His eyes searched her for the response to the question he dreaded to have answered, the one that lay forcefully mute without, but deafening within. The curve of her hip encased in pale peach silk—the shallow valley between her breasts—the amber hair kissing her dappled shoulders—all deceitfully familiar he feared.
Iris's eyes never left his as she lifted her gown up and over her head to stand naked before him, a glowing offering in the dark room, the unexpected answer to his question. Justin's hands shot out and surrounded her, greedily pulling her to him. His mouth found her breast and slipped below it to discover the hard outline of a rib, biting and pulling the skin into his mouth.
"Alexsei, don't leave a mark. He'll see." Even as she spoke, her traitorous hands belied her words as they tangled in his hair, her nails digging into his scalp.
His only response was to gnash his teeth until the honey taste of her gave way to sweet acrid blood. Finally, when she moaned, surrendering her weight into his arms, he moved his mouth to her stomach, then farther down to rest his face against the undeniable swelling there.
In one swift movement he lifted her up until she was straddling his lap. His response to her familiar weight overwhelming and immediate, as if the burning need were conditioned, his hips bucked against her. She leaned into him, laying her face against his, then trailed small wet kisses from his temple to the corner of his mouth. She teased his lips with hers, barely brushing them then retreating. He moaned and snaked his hand against her throat to force her mouth towards his. She leaned away from him and he reluctantly released her, only to have her swoop back down and almost kiss him again. She licked instead at the skin just above his collar, before beginning to unbutton his shirt.
As she pushed her hand through the errant red curls that had fallen to obscure her face as she worked, Justin's attention was drawn to the gold band now encircling her finger. He had done this himself, had given her away in the eyes of God and man. He closed his eyes to block out the taunting glint as her fingers deftly undid the remaining buttons of his shirt—he obligingly moved his arms when she slid his suspenders over his shoulders, tried to control his labored breathing when her hands fell to his belt.
The wedding ring around her finger forgotten as her fingers encircled him, he opened his eyes to watch the smooth shift of muscle along her thighs as she rose up. His hands clutched desperately to her hips as she slid down the length of him. She leaned her face into his, caressing his lips with her breath. When her tongue darted out to taste his lower lip, he thrust roughly into her, managing to ambush her mouth with a punishing kiss before she could protest.
Her eyes, dark blue and cloudy with arousal, focused on his as she bit down on her bottom lip to stifle a moan, as they rocked against one another.
"Irina . . ."
The sound of her name scratched at the back of her neck and lapped at her breast--
"'Ira . . ."
--slid across her thigh and settled in the heat between her legs.
He watched hypnotized as she leaned away from him, arching her back, her breasts and ribs jutting out towards him, rising and falling with each of his movements.
"He'll never know your name . . ."
Her lips barely parted and her eyes clenched tight in concentration as she met each of his thrusts.
"Irina . . ."
Her hand, fingers trembling, dug into her own thigh--
"'Ira . . ."
--then strained against her stomach before falling between their bodies to trace frantic circles into her own slick heat.
"My 'Ira . . . mine forever."
As he felt the muscles in her back go rigid and her legs seizing around his, he put his hand over her mouth, just in time to bury the sound as she screamed out.
She was his own tainted saint, in an ecstasy no less holy than terrible.
His own rhythm became frenzied as she melted exhausted and sated against his chest.
"I am yours always," she breathed against his ear. "Alexsei—" Her words were starting to slur and become faintly accented. She faced him again, both struggling to keep their eyes focused on the other. "My first and you'll be my last . . ."
As his hands dug into the sensitive skin along the ridge of her hipbones, holding her still against him as he finally poured himself into her, she kissed him, sliding her tongue along the roof of his mouth and swallowing the sound of her name.
"My Alpha and Omega . . ."
Justin held his sister curled up in his lap, a small throw from the couch wrapped around her to ward off the chill in the air that crept through the silk of her gown. She buried her face against his neck as he stroked her back. As her body relaxed against his and her breathing softened, Justin knew that she was finally falling asleep. He said a silent prayer to whoever was listening that she would sleep without dreaming.
The sound of a stair creaking shattered the peaceful silence that had fallen over the house. Since they had moved in years ago, the second step from the top had always announced itself. Justin looked towards the stairs, both alarm and annoyance written across his face, as Iris jerked in his arms at the sound.
Startled, Iris quickly stood up, pulling the blanket more closely around her, and moved to put distance between herself and her brother.
"What's going on down here?" Tommy asked, yawning, from the bottom of the stairs.
Iris looked up at him. She was thankful for the scant light in the room that hid the expression of guilt playing across her face. "I couldn't sleep so I came down here," Iris explained, trying to make her voice sound even. "And Justin is always up late preparing for his sermons," she added with a small laugh, walking across the floor to stand beside him.
"Oh," Tommy said, still looking somewhat hesitantly at the two of them.
Iris slipped her arm through his, and caught his hand in hers. "I guess I'm not used to having company in bed," she whispered to him. The smile that had started to creep across Tommy's face was cut off by the sound of Justin's book smacking down against the table. They both turned to see him walking towards them.
"Goodnight, Iris," Justin said, kissing her chastely on the forehead. She closed her eyes and fought back the tremor that threatened to overwhelm her, a lingering aftershock set off by his simple gesture. Justin stared down at her for a beat then looked at Tommy and smiled graciously. "Tommy." He disappeared into the darkness and up the stairs.
"Goodnight," Tommy called after him.
"You look flushed," he said, turning his attention back to his new wife. "Are you feeling alright?"
"Oh, I'm fine," she said forcing a smile. "Just nerves I think."
He nodded at her, taking her words at face value. "Shall we?" he asked motioning towards the stairs.
Iris stood in the kitchen, burying herself once again in the steady hum of domesticity, as she had every day for the last month since they had moved to what Justin was calling New Canaan.
She carefully rinsed each apple for the pie she was preparing, scrubbing gently at their golden and red skins before laying them out on the cutting board. The notes from a song on the radio drifted into the kitchen, covering all the little household noises that seemed to make her jump and start today—the creak of a door or the rustle of the curtains in the wind—each made her breath catch and her pulse thump unsteadily. She pulled a knife out of the drawer beside her, tilted it in the light to watch the glint on the blade, judging its sharpness. She dug the knife into the first apple just below the skin and carefully carved off the peelings in a circular motion.
Her attention drifted waywardly out the window, taking in the billowing sails of the bedding hung out to dry. Her eyes focused on the small bed of lilies growing stubbornly underneath the shade of the only tree in the backyard. The breeze swayed their leaves, bowing their heads, then righting them again.
The stalks of corn, whipped back, bent down, parting like the sea at the prophet’s command, yet waiting to swallow, to choke--- their rough leaves sticking, clinging and itching against bare skin---in the clearing, a cross stands—a misbegotten Calvary strangely out of place in the middle of the corn field, the body hanging from it suddenly looks up—Justin falling down on his knees, a maddening black tree throbbing on his skin, impaled by a broken blade ---the dagger drives through him, blind, consuming pain, splitting through him, through her, severing them.
The unheeded blade bit into her finger. Instinctively, Iris dropped the knife, ignoring it as it clattered to the floor beside her. She looked down to see that the pad of her index finger had been peeled back, like the thin, waxy skin of the apples.
A fat drop of inky black blood budded from her fingertip.
Her lower lip started to shake first and then her shoulders. Iris slumped to the floor, knees tucked under her like a frightened child, no longer seeing her own insignificant wound, but the torrents of blood pouring from her brother’s heart into the thirsty field beneath him. Somewhere in her vision she felt the wooden handle of the knife pressing against her thigh. It was in her hand without a thought, the smooth wood forsaken in favor of the cold metal, and clutched into her fist, planting a smooth wet kiss through her palm. Iris stared down at her fist, cocking her head to study it detachedly.
A river of indelible black trailed down her hand and branched off down her wrist, tattooing midnight veins across her skin, to fall in slow inky drops onto her dress. Like writing on the wall, the history of her blood spilled out indecipherable onto the pale parchment of her skin. Entranced as the blood froze against her skin, she traced the dark river back to its source.
She looked up. A small smile played at the corner of her mouth as she thought how convenient it was that the he had come to her—Justin approaching the doorway, his eyes fixing on her, panic sweeping across his face. She dropped the hand clutching the knife beside her, hidden and waiting.
She watched his mouth move and tried to focus on his words but all she could hear was the deafening roar of something like water all around her as he rushed to kneel in front of her. She felt the familiar touch of his mind against hers, but even that sensation was rendered inarticulate. His hands hurried over her face and neck, searching out the cause of her pain. As his gaze fell to her lap, his fingers shook as he gingerly touched the bloodied spot on her dress. She felt a quick stab of pain in her chest, carving a minute chink in the numbness.
His eyes closed. When he looked at her again, she held out her hand in offering. Relief registered briefly in his eyes. He pried her fingers from around the knife and reached behind her to the counter to pull down a dishtowel. He gripped her wrist as he pressed the rag against her hand to staunch the bleeding. Lowering her hand into her lap, Justin still held tight to it as he leaned forward and softly kissed her forehead.
Without a word, she rose before him, leaving him kneeling on the linoleum like a child at his first communion, poised between innocence and accountability. He watched as she reached behind her back, heard the telltale slide of a zipper. Involuntarily, Justin’s fingers sought out the knife and closed around its handle as Iris shrugged her shoulders and let her dress fall to the floor around her feet.
She half expected the knife’s point—but felt instead his fingers suddenly inside her, splitting her open just as thoroughly—stretching her, moving inside her, his thumb working against her. Her hands gripped the counter, turning her knuckles white. When he dipped his mouth to lick at the wet stamp of blood on her hip, she threw her head back and screamed, shattering the dull roar that had clouded her senses.
He laid back on the floor, letting her crawl over him, her fingers tearing at his buttons, christening the crisp white of his shirt with her blood.
He caught her wrist for a moment and they both stared at the wound in her palm, images of garish red paint on cheap wooden statues imposing themselves over the no less divine tendons of Iris’s hand. She proved the perversity of this comparison when she wrenched her hand free and slid it down the front of his trousers.
She looked up to see Tommy throwing his hat down on the table as he came towards her.
Iris glanced down at her hand and swallowed hard. Red. Red blood creeping down her finger.
When she felt the pressure of his hand at the small of her back, she explained lamely, “I cut my finger peeling apples.”
Tommy took her hand in his and assessed the damage in the light. He grimaced. “That looks pretty nasty. Here, hold your hand under the cold water.” He reached behind her and started the tap then helped her hold her hand underneath the flow. She hissed through her teeth as the water sent a burning jolt all the way up to her elbow.
“Now,” Tommy said, turning off the tap. “It doesn’t look so bad without all that blood.”
“Do you think it’s going to need stitches?” She didn’t look up at the sound of his voice but felt each mundane syllable written out in pinpricks against the back of her neck.
“No,” she answered then turned her attention back to her husband. “Tommy, would you go get me a plaster out of the bathroom cabinet?”
“Sure thing.” Tommy patted her hip in that way she didn’t hate.
Another hand was at her hip as soon as Tommy’s footsteps had cleared the kitchen.
“Don’t.” She shrugged out of her brother’s grasp only to have his other hand grab her wrist.
This scene. So like the vision she’d been lost in. She had to be sure, had to measure Justin’s breath beneath her palm, had to feel his chest, solid and warm.
She smoothed her hand down the lapels of his coat, could have for all outward appearances been fussing over him the way she had since they were children, but his eyebrow raised, the corner of his mouth quirked.
She heard footsteps in the hallway and knew Justin heard them too.
“We need to talk,” she warned.
He nodded, but instead of letting her go, he brought her finger up to his mouth, sucked the stinging tip between his lips—and just as abruptly, turned on his heels and crossed the room, calling behind him, “Be sure to bring one of those by the house tonight, Iris.”
He clasped Tommy on the shoulder as they passed in the doorway, grinned down at him.
“I can practically taste those apple pies already, can’t you?”
When she got to the main house after dinner, the last thing Iris expected to see was Eleanor staring in horror as her brother writhed on the floor, his face contorted in pain.
The pie she’d been carrying was shoved forgotten onto an end table as she dropped to her knees beside him.
She heard Eleanor’s frantic babbling behind her.
“Should I call for a doctor?!”
“No!” Iris’s head snapped up to glare at her. “No, he’ll be alright.”
Iris pulled him closer to her, cradling his head in her lap as the tremors subsided, as his eyes faded from that awful black back to blue. She stroked the damp hair over his forehead, whispered, “Shhh. It’s okay, now,” in a practiced tone.
“Call the men in from the yard to help us get him up to bed.”
“Are you sure he don’t need the doctor?”
“Just get the men.” She was losing her patience but still added, “Please.”
Eleanor nodded and hurried out the door. Iris could hear her yelling off the porch.
She watched as her brother’s large frame was laid out on his bed, thanked the two men who had maneuvered Justin up the stairs. She promised them Brother Justin would personally thank them tomorrow and, of course, he would especially appreciate this incident being held in the strictest confidence--confidence he had in only his most trusted followers.
“I’ll see to him now. Thank you for all your help tonight, Eleanor.” She squeezed the older woman’s weathered hand. “I don’t know what we would do without you.”
Eleanor smiled but it didn’t reach her eyes--her eyes were too busy watching the prone figure on the bed suspiciously.
“You can go on home now,” Iris coaxed. “I’ll sit with him.”
“If you’re sure . . .”
Iris gritted her teeth, wanted to scream at her to leave so she could be sure.
“Yes, I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
As Eleanor reached the doorway, another thought crossed Iris’s mind.
“Actually, Eleanor,” she called. “Would you mind going next door and telling my husband that I’ll be later than I thought?” She forced a long-suffering sigh. “Though he’s probably still so buried in those blueprints that he hasn’t noticed I’m gone.”
That little piece of domestic trivia seemed to have reassured the older woman.
Still Iris listened for her footsteps in the hall, on the stairs, and finally for the closing of the front door, before she locked the bedroom door and sealed herself away with her brother.
She sat on the edge of his bed, waiting. She knew from past experience that he would rest for at least a few hours after one of his “spells.”
She laid her palm across his cheek and found his skin hot and fevered. His shirt was damp with sweat so she began to unbutton it.
As her fingers reached the third button, his hand shot up to catch hers.
Their eyes met, fighting a silent battle that she was determined to win. She knew exactly what she would find underneath the layer of stiff cotton, had seen it all before, a hundred times now, in dreams asleep and awake.
He released her wrist and tangled his fingers in the sheet, watching her intently.
She focused on undoing one button after another.
Finished, she closed her eyes and slipped her palms against his stomach, slid them up to his shoulders, parting the fabric of his shirt. Beneath her fingers she felt the blistered topography of a gnarled trunk, branches splintering out across his chest.
And in the midst of the garden there was a tree, she thought. Aloud, she sighed, “Oh, Alexsei. What have you done?”
“Your eyes shall be opened,” he quoted and her eyes did open, first to find solace in his eyes, the same blue hue as her own, then to steal down to his chest.
Neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
But they were well beyond that warning, had strained and gasped in the face of God’s first dictate a hundred and a hundred and a hundred times over.
She traced her finger down the branch that arched over his sternum, down the thick trunk that bisected his chest, only glancing back up at him when the muscles in his abdomen quivered sharply as her finger stopped where the tattoo disappeared beneath his waistband.
She’d come here with every intention of demanding that all the caresses camouflaged as casual exchanges had to stop--no more goodbye kisses that strayed to the side of her mouth, no more thumb stroking against her lower back as he guided his sister into one room or another.
Yet her traitorous fingers unbuckled his belt, made quick work of the button and zipper, until she took him in her hand and touched him for the first time since her wedding night.
She thought vaguely of a serpent in a garden, but dismissed the image.
Eve had never been so sweetly tempted.
Justin rolled her beneath him, shoving and pulling at her clothes; he whispered, “And we shall be as gods,” against the hollow of her throat, found her throbbing center with his thumb at the same time, worked towards a different death.
“Don’t,” she begged when the steady rocking of his hips had lost its rhythm, when his eyes closed and his breath came in pants against her throat--when her own greedy body was clenching ever harder around him--she said, “Don’t . . . not inside me.”
She squirmed and shoved, until he withdrew, avoiding her frantic hands.
He stared down at her with equal parts frustration and curiosity.
“I’m making the best of this charade.” Her voice was hoarse from sounds she couldn’t think about now.
Justin’s brow furrowed in irritation. She tilted her head to kiss the angry lines before she could stop herself.
Instead of wrenching her arms above her head and finishing what she had started, Justin shifted until he was at her side, head propped on his hand, waiting to see what she said next.
“If I’m Tommy’s wife--” and despite playing house and the begrudging affection she felt for her husband, the words were still hard to say with Justin’s eyes watching her so intently “--then I shouldn’t be with you like this.”
She knew it wasn’t fair, that she was the instigator this time.
She knew that she had denied him nothing in his life--and now was a hell of a time to start.
She bit her lower lip and admitted what was really forcing her hand: “I don’t seem to be able to stop myself.” Her mind was constantly filled with one debauched encounter after another, the visions finding her whether she was awake or asleep. “But,” she muttered. “ --the least I can give him.”
The condescension in those two syllables made her want to slap him.
The sound of his voice alone made her clench against the empty space he should occupy.
She watched as he rose up on his knees, moved until he was straddling her thighs. He blocked everything else from her sight, as he so often did.
Her world was made up of the broad expanse of tattooed chest, rising and falling with increasing speed, the near pained expression on his familiar face--his hand slowly working up and down his length.
He leaned down until his weight was supported by one hand bunching into her pillow. His eyes fixed on her mouth and her lips parted as they were accustomed to doing.
“May I come in his wife’s mouth?”
His taunting tongue entered her mouth before she could answer, sweeping along the roof, then withdrawing to tease her lower lip.
His gaze fell to her breasts and she felt her own breathing become shallow.
“Or across his wife’s breasts?”
She anticipated teeth meeting her breast but gasped instead when he suddenly flipped her over onto her stomach. His hands grabbed her by the hips until she was drawn up on hands and knees.
His fingers fanned out over the curves of her ass and she bit her lip, anticipating the shock of pain to come, but his thumbs worked lower, parting her thighs wider.
“Or what if I come”--he slipped inside her again in one fluid motion, fingers reaching between her legs again until her vision blurred-- “between my sister’s exquisite thighs”--his other hand clutched her hip so that her body hitched back as his jerked forward-- “like I have every”--he pulled nearly out then thrust back to the hilt again-- “time”--the movement of his hips punctuated his speech-- “since our first time?”
She bit at the pillow and grabbed fistfuls of the sheets as her body tensed near to breaking.
When both of his hands moved to her hips, when they collided once more, she did break.
He was heavy against her back where he had collapsed and hadn’t moved.
She looked over her shoulder at his smug expression and said, “Brat.”
Whether she spoke it in their native tongue or the one they had so long ago adopted, Justin wasn’t sure. Either way, he dipped his head to kiss the constellation of freckles on Iris’s left shoulder.
Later downstairs, with Justin in crisp blue pajamas and her in clothes that were too obviously wrinkled but all she had, she watched her brother eat another mouthful of apple pie.
He grinned at her around the fork.
Her brother’s mouth is the most talented she’s ever encountered. His words command masses, seen and unseen--can break wills, inspire loyalty. O ne grin--that makes him look like the teenager who’d finally fumbled his way inside her, despite her unbidden tears and the risk of being overheard by Norman and Rose just down the hall--one grin and she’s raising her skirt and offering herself to him again, grabbing him by the lapels of the pajamas she had bought him because she knew how they would set off his eyes. She raises her hips and writhes against his mouth, can’t wait to watch his eyes darken as she licks his chin clean later.
“I need you to leave me alone,” she said suddenly.
Justin looked up at her from across the table.
“I can't stop myself, can't stay away from you so I need you to promise. Promise this won't happen again. Promise.”
He raised the glass of milk to his lips and took a long swallow.
“The things I see, Alexsei--”
He sat the glass down, pushed the plate away and listened.
“I’ve hired someone—a maid—to help at your house, to take care of the cooking and cleaning.”
“I can’t run both houses. I’m tired.”
Even after the pleading and promises, she tilted her head down when he angled his up as she passed his chair.
Instead of kissing him goodnight, she said, “She’ll be here tomorrow.”
More often than she would like, Tommy invited Justin to dinner at their house.
More often than she would like, her husband and her brother ended up sequestered in the small study making plans without her.
Tonight, all the planning and plotting had been done earlier, in a room at the main house crowded with politicians, leaving just the three of them sitting around the table in their kitchen.
Iris tried and failed to be interested in Justin’s musings on the merits of various stained-glass designs for the sanctuary.
She frowned and dropped a hand to her belly.
Justin’s eyes were fixed on her.
She shook her head and dismissed the question with a laugh: “He's just moving.”
Tommy reached over to pat Iris’s stomach and grinned.
“He’s been kicking up a storm the last couple of weeks.”
“You wouldn’t be so amused by it,” Iris scolded, swatting his hand away and smiling, “if you were the one constantly being pummeled.”
Justin’s knife scratched against his plate as he sawed through a piece of steak.
“I’m thinking we really should go with a local artist.”
She saw Justin to the door instead of Tommy.
She raised up on her tiptoes as if to kiss him goodnight, taking her brother by surprise--she hadn’t broken her self-imposed rule, not in all these months. Instead of kissing his cheek, she whispered, “Don’t act like a petulant child, Alexsei. You gave your favorite toy away. I even got you a new one.”
He sulked for days after that dinner, made everyone around him miserable, until that part of Iris that had always spoiled her brother, the part of her that would have given him a houseful of children instead of paving the pathway for a Prophet if only he had asked, gave in.
“Don’t make me regret this,” she warned, taking his hand in hers and laying it over the place where the baby’s movements seemed to concentrate.
“I don’t feel anything.”
His tone was still sour, but he hadn’t managed to entirely hide the disappointment in his eyes.
“It’s your voice,” Iris explained. “Start talking.”
Her brother looked at her incredulously.
With an expression that said he was humoring her, and certainly not indulging a private fantasy, Justin bent to one knee to be closer to her belly. He stroked his hand along its underside, before settling it where Iris had directed earlier.
Glancing up at his sister once more, he stared down into the swell that stretched the navy fabric of her dress.
“Journey down from the dens of lions, From the mountains of leopards. You have made my heart beat faster, my sister.”
Iris’s hand fell to cover Justin’s; she closed her eyes and listened to the deep timbre of his voice speaking Solomon’s words.
“You have made my heart beat faster with a single glance of your eyes, With a single strand of your necklace. How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride. How much better is your love than wine--”
Just as she had predicted, the baby fluttered, a foot or elbow jutting out as it moved.
By the look of awe on his face, she could tell that Justin felt it too, couldn’t resist running her fingers through his hair and saying, “He likes the sound of his father’s voice.”
Justin’s voice fills the room but his lips are moving out of sync with the words. Every bit of him is inside her, warm and hard and made to fit just there, and she’s going to split apart from it if he moves. One ink-stained hand is claiming her hip, holding her steady, but the other is busy mapping the curve of her stomach, where taut skin stretches even tighter in his wake. A hand presses to meet his father’s; a face like a doll’s--the hollow of an eye socket, the curve of a cheek--appears in relief against her skin. Her hands that had been so firmly linked through the branches on her brother’s chest slip around his throat. His voice continues but his lips stop. A foot no bigger than her thumb kicks out against her belly and almost brushes his father’s still stomach as Iris leans over, shifting all her weight to her hands. Justin’s lips are blue and cold when she finally kisses him. She thinks, how much like that night at the river this is, kissing his cold, pale cheeks.
“And why shouldn’t he?” Justin teased, teasing his hand up her stockinged thigh. “It certainly used to make his mother squirm in her seat every Sunday.”
“I wonder if it still has the same effect.”
It did, he discovered, but she backed away, shoving his hands away and looking so terrified that he let her go.
The next day he singled her out at the tail-end of a meeting, calling her back with a curt, “Iris.”
“The new girl’s not working out. See if you can find someone else, will you?” His voice lowered to a whisper as he added, “A redhead maybe.”
The maid, Celeste was her name, huddled silent and naked in the corner of Justin’s bedroom.
Iris couldn’t help but feel both pity and revulsion at the girl’s obvious weakness--a bit of guilt at the hapless pawn sacrificed to their whims.
The call to the hospital was easy to make. Feeble excuses suited the facility fine as long as the payment, delivered from Iris’s pocket to the attendant’s, was in cash.
It was an annoyance mostly. One more chore in a day already brimming with them.
“I didn’t know you had company, Justin.”
It was an obvious lie and the look Justin gave her confirmed it.
“Yes. This is Wilfred Talbot Smith—a historian of sorts.” He seemed unusually preoccupied as he spoke. “Wilfred, my sister Iris.”
“It’s nice to meet you.”
She held out her hand and slipped easily into the role of doting sister.
The little man looked nervously at her before taking her hand in his clammy one.
He stared at her swelling figure intently, righting his glasses on the bridge of his nose, for a better look.
She felt like a bug on a pin under his gaze.
She looked from Smith to her brother and back.
“Forgive me,” she said. “But I can’t help but wonder what need my brother has for a historian.”
“Nothing to concern yourself about, dear.” His voice wreaked of false sincerity; his attention seemed drawn to a book lying on his desk. “Was there something you needed?”
“It can wait.”
“I’m tired of all of your secrets. I’m tired of being sent out of rooms and dismissed like one of your lackeys.”
He grabbed her elbow and she hissed, “Don’t touch me,” jerked away like he’d burnt her.
Tommy was used to her slipping out of bed in the middle of the night. The pregnancy was a convenient excuse: she simply couldn’t get comfortable.
She couldn’t remember the dream this time, not exactly, just that it had ended as all the others had--with Justin dead and her alone.
He answered the phone himself.
Between maids, she thought.
She had woken him up out of his bed, safe at home. He was fine. Not bleeding, not dying. She could see him clearly in her mind, hair tousled from sleep, standing in his pajamas, trying to wake up and focus on what she was saying.
“I’m sorry.” It seemed so childish now to have given into the compulsion to call him.
“Iris? It’s after three,” he muttered. “What’s wrong?” Awareness gave his voice an edge it had lacked a moment ago.
“I’m sorry. I just needed to know that you were alright.”
The Russian is straight from Google Translate. I apologize to any native speakers. Prosti menya.
“What does this mean?” Justin slammed the worn volume down in front of this self-appointed expert.
The lines on the page in question were smudged from worry.
Wilfred Talbot Smith adjusted his glasses, read the passage again as if he hadn’t committed the entire Gospel of Matthias to memory within weeks of it coming into his possession.
This part was surprisingly straightforward.
“They go mad,” he said. “It breaks them.”
The cold fury in the would-be Usher’s eyes left him no choice but to continue: “Certain sacrifices are necessary.”
“But surely if she’s one of these Vectorum ,” Justin began. He rubbed at the bridge of his nose as if he had a migraine. “We have the same blood.”
“She’s merely a vessel. Once she’s served her purpose--”
Smith was yanked up from the chair by his lapels; his back hit the trunk of the tree with enough force to drive the breath from his body. Around them the sky burned. He blinked up into the Usher’s black eyes.
“You find a way or there won’t be a corner of hell deep enough to hide you from my wrath.”
“Alexsei, let him go.”
The tree on the hill faded to Justin’s study.
Smith scrambled away as the Usher focused on his sister, now standing in the doorway.
“It’s already happening,” she said evenly. “There’s nothing he can do. There’s nothing you can do.”
The Usher slumped against his desk, heeling to a mere Vectorum; as disgusted as he was, Smith took the opportunity to flee from the house while he still could.
Iris caught Justin’s face in her hands, held his stare until his eyes returned to normal and met hers.
“She drug us across continents, Alexsei, listening to voices that weren’t there. Angels whispering to her about assassins in every village, every city. She was mad.”
“Vy ne nasha mat’.” <You are not our mother.>
“No. But she wasn’t always like that. You don’t remember, but I do.”
She didn’t have to add, It started when you were born , because they both knew.
“There has to be a way.”
No amount of prayer had kept the visions, the nightmares, at bay.
Justin’s “scholars” had been equally ineffective.
She doubted even God would intervene when the time came.
If idle hands were the devil’s workshop, an idle mind was his playground, so she kept busy.
Today she was organizing the volunteer rotation for the migrant camp. There was so much to do but she was distracted by the heat. Her hair stuck to the back of her neck and she could feel a bead of sweat slowly making its way between her shoulder blades.
She’d ask Justin to open the windows in the study, but the air was just as oppressive and still outside as it was in the house.
The way he was watching her every time she looked up from the papers spread around her on the sofa didn’t help.
He watched her now in a way he hadn’t before. Her pregnancy had became a source of both fascination and fear for her brother.
She flexed her toes, her shoes cast off an hour ago, to combat the ache that constantly throbbed in her swollen feet.
She fanned herself with one of the papers, pulled at the neck of her thin cotton dress to let some of the air waft against her chest. She wasn’t sure how Justin was standing the temperature in all those layers.
She looked over to see him staring at her again.
“Is there something on your mind, Justin?” she snapped.
He smiled at her and openly let his eyes wonder over the contours that’d had his attention all afternoon.
“Just wondering what happened to my skinny sister,” he mused.
Iris looked self-consciously down at herself. Her midsection had doubled in size over the past few weeks. It still took her by surprise every time she looked in the mirror.
She resisted the urge to cross her arms over her chest.
“Justin,” she warned. “I’m tired. I want to get this finished so I can go home.”
A cold bath might help, she thought.
She’d finished penciling in the last name for breakfast duty, when he stalked around his desk without warning and pulled her up to stand in front of him.
“I want to see you.”
“I want,” he said slowly, his fingers, lightly trailing down her side, “to see you.”
She narrowed her eyes at him and swatted his hand away. “No, don't be absurd.”
“Oh, let’s see. It’s the middle of the afternoon. We are standing in your study. Any number of people—including my husband—could walk in at any moment.”
“The door is locked.”
She narrowed her eyes at the very nerve of him.
When he shrugged his shoulders, she said, “I can’t. You promised.”
“I just want to see you. I used to know your body so well and now, it’s so changed.”
“Stop it, Justin.”
“Please, Irina. I’m curious.”
She moved for the door only to be blocked by a solid wall of cassock-ed chest, her brother’s bright blue eyes and charming smirk.
“This isn’t funny. Get out of my way.”
She shoved at his arm.
“Where are you going?” he teased.
“I’m leaving. Move.”
She finally shoved past him, hand reaching for the door knob.
His arms came around her and pulled her back against his chest; he surrounded her like a shadow.
He held her hands in his, held them together against her stomach. He whispered hotly in her ear, “Please show me, ‘Ira. Show me where our son is growing.”
The slump of her tensed shoulders signaled his triumph, but he was in a rare mood, preferred to coax rather than to take today.
“The door to this room is locked,” he explained. “The house is locked up tight too.”
At Iris’s raised eyebrow and frown, he said simply, “We've had to increase security lately.”
“Is that what you call those rough necks outside? Security ?”
He maneuvered her back towards his desk, trusted her to stay where he left her, as he pulled the curtains closed over the window.
“There. I’ve pulled the curtains.”
He came back to her and lifted the damp hair from the back of her neck.
“We are alone.”
He threaded his fingers through her hair.
“Just you and me.”
He found the pins holding it up off her shoulders and pulled them loose.
“When was the last time we were this alone?”
“Justin--” It sounded more like a plea than a warning even to her own ears.
“May I?” he asked, his large fingers fiddling with a delicate button on the collar of her dress.
She nodded, too tired and hot to fight.
She had missed him more than she could say, had missed them.
That they would end up back like this was as inevitable as the madness awaiting her.
One by one, carefully and slowly, Justin undid the pearl buttons down the front of Iris’s dress, until it could easily be pulled over her head. She caught the fabric in her fingers and started to lift it but he took over the task, pulling it over her head and off her arms, laying it carefully aside.
She wasn’t wearing stockings in deference to the heat and her slip clung to her skin from the humidity.
“Satisfied?” she asked, but didn’t wait for his answer because she knew her own.
Her hands disappeared beneath her slip to trail her panties down her legs and kick them off.
She turned her back to Justin.
When she pulled at her slip, it stuck momentarily at her belly. She felt Justin’s fingers fumbling with the clasp of her bra at her back.
Bra and slip were discarded to the floor with the rest of her clothes.
Finally naked, she turned to face him.
She watched his eyes darken, not to black but to a deeper blue, as he took her in.
He stared at her ripe breasts, knew they would be heavier in his hands now, her widened hips, the swell of her belly and all its glorious complexities. It was framed by the stripes of stretch marks, her naval shallower than it had been. A strange, faint line bisected her belly.
She was like an animal that had changed its skin.
Even the freckles over her knees and along her upper arms, the ones that dappled her chest, were darker now despite how pale her skin remained.
He trailed his fingers reverently along the side of her breast, down to the curve of her hip.
Finally, he said, “There he is,” and laid his palm over the curve of her abdomen.
He fell to his knees in front of her.
“Vasha mat’ krasiva,” he whispered against her skin. <Your mother is beautiful.>
Iris’s hands fell to run her fingers through his hair; she’d almost made herself forget how comforting it was to do that.
“She’s going to complain and she’s going to protest,” Justin continued. “To be stubborn and willful, but I’m going to lay her over my desk, spread her thighs, and fuck her properly because I know that’s what she really wants.”
She gladly walked backwards the few steps to his desk, let him lift her up and settle her against the polished wood, the papers and books. When she looked down, she saw her naked thigh against the blueprints for the temple.
She knew her brother well enough to know how much he would enjoy worshiping at his own personal temple atop the temple that was being built just up the hill. Their child and that building--monuments to his hubris both.
He took off his cassock and threw it over a chair. He slid his suspenders down his arms, unbuttoned his cuffs, then his collar, unbuckled his belt and finished the buttons on his shirt.
Her fingers itched to help as he hunched his hips to undo his zipper, shoving pants and boxers down his hips. She settled for echoing his earlier sentiment--“Vash otets tozhe krasivaya” --as he toed off his shoes and socks until he was just as naked as she was. <”Your father is beautiful too.”>
They were going to ruin the Architect’s carefully drawn plans.
He started with her swollen feet, rubbing his long fingers into their arches until Iris sighed. His hands swept up her calves; his mouth dropped to nip at the freckles over her right knee. His hands kneaded into her thighs and spread them further apart.
He lifted her by the hips and brought her closer to the edge of the desk.
She propped herself up on her elbows, met him just short of halfway when he kissed her, dropped her head back when he said, “I’ve missed you.”
Her words were stolen as a finger slipped inside her.
Instead of adding another, he stared down at her, concerned.
“‘Ira, do you have a fever?”
Instead of answering, she canted her hips forward, impatient.
She watched the laugh swell in his Adam's apple and would have tasted it with her tongue, but leaning forward from her prone position proved more difficult than she had anticipated.
“Help me up.” She reached out a hand to him but he just kissed her palm and dropped it back to the desk.
His hands were busy then, reaching between them until they were perfectly aligned.
He pushed slowly into her until they were completely joined and she could lock her legs around his back, holding him there.
His eyes were closed in prayer or pain.
“You’re burning inside.”
He moved with a careful, deliberate pace, touched her like she was a fragile thing, a wonderful thing.
It was so like those early times.
She wondered how he couldn’t see the terrible thing she had become.
She grabbed the back of his neck when he came close enough, made sure he was looking at her when she rasped, “I want you to treat me like one of them.”
His brow furrowed; he shook his head.
“Hollow imitations.” He trailed the backs of his fingers down her sternum, between her breasts. “False idols.”
“Fuck me like you mean it.”
Her words had the desired effect, the flaring of his nostrils, his hands rough at the small of her back, even as he helped her to sit up.
“I always mean it, sweet sister.”
When they kissed, she pulled his lower lip between her teeth and bit down.
He pulled back with a groan and wiped at the blood that welled up. He looked down at the red stain on his fingers then back at her.
She said, “Please,” and for once he obliged.
Afterwards, she was bleeding and sore and bruised--but so was he.
She was almost certain the bite on his shoulder would scar.
He hears heavy boots running across the porch moments before a pounding starts on his study door.
He’s barely offered a bored, “Enter,” before one of his Knights appears, out of breath and looking as if he’d rather be anyone but the fabled, ill-fated messenger.
“It’s your sister--”
“Bog nakazyvayet menaya.” <God is punishing me.>
He hears her voice the moment the door opens, follows the sound of it down a hallway.
“--stop! Tell me how I can help you.”
“ U menya yest’, chtoby poluchit’ yego!” < “I have to get it out!”>
“Please let me have that. Iris--”
He finds Tommy crouching in the narrow doorway of the bathroom, reaching a hand inside.
The tap in the bathtub is still running, water cascading down into the floor and soaking the tiles.
It trails around pieces of mirrored glass that grind to powder beneath his shoes as he pushes past the other man.
Tommy tears his eyes away from the crouched figure across the room long enough to glance at the dark shape looming between them.
“Doctor’s on his way,” he says.
“Pozhaluysta pomogite.” < “Please help me.”>
“What’s she saying? Honey, I don’t understand you--”
He ignores everything except her.
He focuses on the panicked way her shoulders are pressed against the wall like a trapped bird’s wings against a window, how she doesn’t seem to notice the water soaking into her open robe or the glass beneath her knees.
The swell of her abdomen is weeping in dozens of crimson crosshatches and there’s blood under her fingernails and a shard of glass from the broken mirror clutched in her hand.
When he says her name again, he imagines the look in her eyes is the same as what must haunt the butcher after the killing blow.
“Pozhaluysta, pomogite mne, Alexsei.” < “Please help me, Alexsei.”>
“YA zdes'. YA pomogu tebe.” < “I’m here. I’ll help you.”>
“U menya yest’, chtoby poluchit’ yego.” < “I have to get it out.”>
Her intention is clear and her taunt skin depresses under the determined edge of the glass.
“Give me that!” His words come out harsher than he intends and her eyes narrow at him.
“I’ll help you,” he promises. “We’re in this together.”
Her anger is as sharp as the shard that cuts an arch into the skin near her navel.
She hisses in pain and he falls to his knees, beseeches her as vehemently as he ever did the Lord: “Pozhaluysta, ne Ushibsya . . . Pozhaluysta, yemu bol’no.” < “Please don’t hurt yourself . . . Please don’t hurt him.”>
“I have to—I have to--”
Her fists meet her flesh within a sickening sound.
“You put it here.”
“You don’t want to hurt our son.”
“I saved you and I killed them.”
She lays all her sins at his feet but he begs her forgiveness: “Prosti menya.” < “Forgive me.”>
If he could find her hand in the freezing dark of the river, surely he can find her before she slips beneath these murky waters.
He grabs her wrist but not before it lashes out.
His arm burns as Tommy tries to step between them.
She swims in and out of consciousness.
There’s a face she doesn’t recognize sometimes and, sometimes, a voice that she does.
When they talk, it’s about her and not to her, the words floating somewhere just above her.
There’s a sting in her arm and a voice telling her to rest as if she had any other choice.
She recognizes her brother’s head tilted in prayer, that it’s his hands that are wrapped around hers, though there is a steady throbbing in her palm.
There’s also a tear in the sleeve of his shirt--one of his best--and a stiff ring of something that looks suspiciously like dried blood around it. She can mend the rip but the stain will be harder to erase if it sits.
She tries to sit up, ready to chastise him for his carelessness, but winces as soon as her neck lifts off the pillow.
His eyes meet hers before closing again. He carefully kisses the back of her fingers, holds them against his lips so she can feel him say, “You’re awake,” even though it sounds more like a question than a statement.
She wants to ask her own questions but her tongue is thick and doesn’t cooperate.
“It was a very trying evening,” he says, and she remembers the same tired tone warning her not to cut her feet--but the water had been so red and his eyes so dark.
The next time she wakes, it’s to the sharp smell of iodine and Justin hovering over her.
The blood is gone from his arm and he’s clean-shaven and collected.
She might have imagined the damage from before.
But he looks at her warily and raises her gown without speaking. When he brings the rag down to her skin, it stings like she’s fallen into a bed of ants.
When she looks down for the cause, she sees furrows, red and angry, starting to scab, a small line of stitches next to her navel, and bruises, some older and fading to yellow near her hips, some livid blue and purple and terrifying, across the curve of her stomach.
Justin leans and blows across one of the cuts, mimicking all the times she’d fixed split lips and scraped elbows.
“Your sweet belly’s going to match my back.”
I saved you and I killed them.
She catches his arm, focuses his attention.
God is punishing me.
“Why am I here instead of at home?”
“Nothing you need to concern yourself with now. Just rest.” His voice is placating but she is not one of his sheep.
“The police have been at your house,” he says finally. “There was an attack last night.”
“I’ve explained everything to them. They won’t be worrying you with it. Not in your condition and with the shock of it all.”
He seals the bottle and stands.
“My Knights of Jericho caught the fiend on the road. He’s been turned over to the authorities.”
The lies fall so easily off her brother’s tongue but the bruised ring around her wrist matches his hand, the bright red trails across her abdomen, the dimensions of her own fingers.
Her husband is conspicuously absent from Justin’s story and her bedside.
When she wakes again, clear-headed but with throbbing temples, she learns she is a widow.
No one expects her to attend the funeral, so she doesn’t.
Iris drops to her knees and screams while down in the valley below her brother falters in his sermon, but only briefly.
Lightning--from heat and never rain--strikes the edge of camp and starts a fire.
He’s spent hours—days—worrying about the fate of her mind, her soul, but always after.
He’s thought very little about the act itself, that sorrow greatly multiplied carries through walls and etches itself into everything around it. That no amount of pacing or praying or bargaining will lessen her pain.
Women die in childbirth every day, women who are younger than her, women who have bloomed and glowed, not hollowed and faded.
He’s haunted by the idea, by the threat of something else, something more terrestrial, lurking in the recesses of their blood that combined will come to light.
She screams again and it doesn’t sound human.
Then the house is silent. All the agonized fury gutted like a candle flame between impatient fingers.
At her door he hears her voice, alive and impatient--“Give him to me”--and a wail.
She looks like she’s fallen out of his nightmares and it freezes him in place.
Her hair is plastered to her forehead and her neck, clinging to damp skin blanched of all its color save for the bruise-colored hollows under her eyes. Her thighs are stamped with blood, the sheets beneath her soaked through.
There’s no way she has survived this unbroken.
But it’s his Irina who looks up from the squirming bundle on her chest and smiles, who brings a hand to her mouth to stifle a laugh that turns into a sob.
“Out,” he says and the doctor, the nurse, mindlessly follow his command until they are alone.
He wipes the sweat, her amber hair, from her brow, reverently kisses her cheek and tastes the salt of her tears, kisses her mouth and breathes awe and devotion against her lips.
Her voice is worn hoarse when she asks, “Do you remember? Like I taught you to hold my dolls.”
The tiny figure curls wrinkled and red limbs towards a chest no bigger than his father's hand.
God himself had never created life so divine.
She pours secrets into his ears, their story as only they know it in their mother tongue.
“Otets i dyadya.”
She kisses one hand and then the other, repeats the game.
“Mat’ i tetya. Syn i grekh.”
Father and uncle.
Mother and aunt.
Son and sin.
He is not jealous of his own son.
Still, having been the sun around which Iris’s attention had orbited his entire life, the abrupt shift of that focus to their son is disorienting.
She’s a wonderful mother. Isaac has rarely been out of her arms and, to his knowledge, never out of her sight. He’s never even been alone with him. He’s held him certainly, marveled at every minute detail of the infant for hours, but always with Iris at his side.
Even with his sister’s single-minded devotion to their child, he can’t help but remember her desperate resolve that awful day when she begged to be rid of him before he was even born. It doesn’t help that the vague, frightening images he has of his own mother from his early childhood have long since been replaced by Iris’s face.
He wonders if the guarded way they watch each other with Isaac is perhaps unnatural, but he has no frame of reference by which to measure the compulsion.
Iris doesn’t need to know that his men have orders to watch her too, that she’s not to leave the house without someone following close behind—not that she’s gone farther than the yard to fetch something from the clothes line.
After a month, he admittedly grows tired of her self-imposed exile to motherhood--and to the guestroom—but the milky smell that clings to her over her perfume suits her in a way he’d be reluctant to change.
Despite the attention, Isaac screams like clockwork in the night.
Generally, he’s soon hushed and Justin doesn’t consider going across the hall but tonight he can hear Iris’s voice over the crying.
He’s taken aback by exactly how much he has missed the sound of her singing. She’d sang at church, of course, every week, but she’d also sang, sometimes without even realizing it, around their house--as she waited for water to boil on the stove, while she soldiered through more needlework, as she’d dried after the bath.
She’s singing to Isaac and slowly pacing the floor with him when Justin lets himself into her room.
“Here,” he offers, “let me,” and is shocked when she lets him take the baby from her arms without a fuss. It’s a testament to just how tired she must be.
“You didn’t sleep through a single night until you were two,” she says, eventually.
Her head bumps against his shoulder and stays there.
“You were a horrible baby.”
He can’t help but smile at the way her accent, generally so carefully hidden, slips through and slurs her voice.
She’s falling asleep on her feet, swaying against him as he rocks the baby against his chest.
When Isaac’s cries have stopped and he’s finally fallen asleep again, Justin steers Iris towards her bed with his free hand.
“Lay back down.”
She’s too tired to argue but when he settles in beside her, the baby’s head carefully tucked into the crook of his elbow, she looks mildly startled at the implication.
“No,” she says. “We might roll on him.”
“I know for a fact that he hasn’t slept in that crib yet.”
“Go back to your bed.”
He couldn't count the number of times they'd shared this particular exchange over the years, him coaxing a few more minutes, a few more kisses, out of her despite her caution.
She seems satisfied this time to take the baby from him and to curl herself around the tiny sleeping form, to let him mirror the gesture and press his chest against her back. When his hand hesitates at her hip, she pulls his arm tighter around her.
“He makes us a murder,” she mumbles.
“What did you say?”
Her eyes are closed when she explains.
“Norman is coming out later today to meet Isaac.”
Justin pats the side of his mouth with his napkin and drops it onto the table.
“Don’t look like that, Justin. Isaac’s more than three months old and Norman’s never even seen him.”
He slides his chair back and stands.
“He’s the closest thing he has to a grandfather. Maybe the baby will help smooth things over between the two of you.”
“He’s made his position very clear.”
Norman is charmed by the baby, naturally good with children, but Isaac looks at him warily when he’s sat in his lap.
Unused to being held by anyone other than his parents, he fusses to go back to Iris.
She leans over and kisses one of his hands as he reaches for her then smiles at Norman.
“I want you to baptize him.”
She shakes her head.
“I’d rather you do it.”
Norman turns his attention back to the baby, “I can’t imagine your uncle will be happy with that.”
There’ll be hell to pay for welcoming their son into the family of God this way, she knows, but she says, “I want it to be simple. He’ll make a fuss and I just want it done.”
She doesn’t mention how Justin has already declared that Isaac will be the first one baptized in the new church, despite how long the wait for that will still be, and she doesn’t even want to admit to herself that her real motive is avoiding anything that recalls a particularly vivid nightmare of another baby from long ago floating blue and bloated in a river.
“I’d be honored then.”
She lays her hand over Norman’s and squeezes.
“Thank you. He’ll be in Los Angeles next week.”
“What a cozy picture the three of you make.”
Her smile is forced and so is his in answer.
The way she adjusts Isaac against her shoulder as he sleeps and sweeps a bit of drool from his cherub mouth with her thumb ensures he’ll indulge her in this little domestic scene, however.
“Norman,” he says, holding out his hand, “It’s been too long.”
Norman rises to shake his hand, calls him “son” as he had before all the unpleasantness had occurred.
“Your nephew is a beautiful boy, a real blessing.”
“That he is.”
He takes an earlier train and comes home to a quiet house: it’s dark out and the maid has already gone home; Iris should be in her room but he finds it empty.
Isaac isn’t in his crib and a familiar panic lodges itself in his throat.
He’s about to call her name, when he hears the shower turn on and Iris humming to herself.
“Now what are you doing in here?”
The baby is in his bed, pillows tucked around him so he won’t roll off.
He’s rolled to his stomach, though, and raises his wobbly head at the sound of Justin’s voice.
He picks him up and smooths down the tuft of hair that’s sticking out from where he’d been sleeping.
“I think you’ve grown in the last week.”
He moves Iris’s robe out of his chair so he can settle Isaac on his knee, tilts his head and then again to catch his son’s wandering gaze.
“Where did your mother take you yesterday? Hmm.”
It could have been nothing, a trip into town or a simple visit to Norman’s.
The man assigned to look after Iris had proven incompetent. The call to say she’d gone out was appreciated but the fact that he hadn’t known where she’d gone was not. He’s already been replaced.
He looks up at the doorway in time to see his sister raise a startled hand to her chest.
“I didn’t think you’d be home until tomorrow.”
The same hand clutches at the knot of the towel wrapped around her when he smiles.
Her skin is flushed from the warm shower and her hair falls past her shoulders, a few shades darker than usual now that it’s wet.
His eyes fall to the bottom of the towel laying against her damp thighs.
When their eyes meet again, her cheeks flush even more.
She looks for her robe and he nods in its direction.
“ Someone has been sleeping in my bed.”
He bounces his knee and Isaac kicks his legs out, happily.
“I believe the bear in that story was very unhappy about the arrangement, but I don’t mind.”
“I’ve missed you,” she admits.
And he’s missed her, missed this.
“I know.” He tastes the exact spot her neck becomes shoulder. “I could smell you on my pillow.”
He feels her chest move beneath his even though he doesn’t hear her laugh.
Her hair is still damp and spread out against the pillow in question when he stares down at her.
“I’m here now.”
“You are,” she agrees, but he feels her strain up against him to reassure herself, the same way he’s been taking in every soft curve and harder edge beneath him. She smiles up at him, adding, “and Isaac is fed and asleep.”
He laughs now.
“Miracle of miracles.”
He raises off her just enough for her to ruck her gown up to her waist and to slide his own pajamas out of their way.
Given the hungry kisses she’s peppering along his jaw, the desperate way she’s biting at his throat and her very presence in his bed again, he doesn’t expect her to cry out in pain, or for the sound to carry through the house as it does.
“It’ll get better,” she promises through gritted teeth.
He’s not sure which one of them she’s reassuring.
He’s also not sure he could have stopped even without her permission.
Her nails dig into his shoulders just as a familiar cry starts from across the hall.
“Stay,” he says, trapping her wrists on the pillow above her head in one of his hands, when she starts to struggle.
Her body is tense for the wrong reasons, but she nods finally, says, “Don’t stop.”
He finds her breast through her gown, mouths it until the fabric has gone transparent.
It’s over quickly and the baby is still crying.
He’s surprised—but pleased—when she whines, “Please,” and guides his hand between them. “He’ll stop soon.”
She’s warm and slick where he touches--from his release and not her own--but that only makes him more determined to persuade her reluctant body to follow.
He traces his finger over her until she bites her bottom lip and crooks a knee; he licks at her throat and bites down on an earlobe, whispers a torrent of crude encouragements into her ear.
Her toes dig into the sheets and he can’t help but bait her: “ Better ?”
“I can think of”—her hips lift off the mattress to press harder against his hand and her eyes meet his in open challenge—“a better way for you to use your mouth than teasing me.”
When she starts to sit up, after, he nudges her back and says, “I’ll get him.”
“She was mine first you know.”
Though he’s worked himself red-faced in his fit, the baby hushes almost the moment Justin lifts him out of the crib, just as he knew he would.
When he goes back to his room, bouncing a happier baby in his arms, Iris has turned on the lamp and propped herself against the headboard.
She holds out her arms.
“He’s fine,” Justin scolds.
“He was probably frightened.”
“You’ve spoiled him.”
The way Iris raises her eyebrow and looks at him, he has to smile and admit to the boy in his arms, “She’s spoiled us both—but whose fault is that?”
Decided to break this next chapter in two so I could post an update.
Nothing is more beautiful than the sight of Isaac with Justin, especially when her brother is not aware that she’s watching them. He’s next to her, their son laying across his bare chest. He’d rubbed the baby’s back until they’d both fallen asleep. Isaac’s arm jerks in his sleep as he dreams. She soothes her fingers down his soft arm.
Her hand comes away wet and red.
She pulls Isaac up, startling him out of sleep until he starts to scream. He’s covered in blood, wet and sticky with it as she tries to wipe it all away and find the wound, but he doesn’t seem to be bleeding anywhere.
But Justin is.
The tree across his chest is crimson now, looks like it has melted and is flowing down his body in dozens of rivers.
She presses her hands to his chest but the blood bubbles up between her fingers.
The sheets soak through with it until she’s kneeling knee-deep in her brother’s blood and trying to keep him from being swept away in its current.
It’s the first time she’s woken herself screaming in months.
Or maybe the echo of her voice was part of the dream itself because the baby is still asleep beside her and Justin isn’t at her door.
Regardless she spends the rest of the night on her knees beside her bed praying, then praying harder when the futility of the act threatens to overwhelm her.
She’s later to breakfast than usual and Justin has just finished; the maid is clearing away his plate.
He looks concerned when he sees her.
“Sit and eat.”
He gestures for her to pass the baby to him and she does.
She pushes the eggs around on her plate, takes longer than necessary to cut the slice of ham into small pieces that she has no intention of eating.
“I think you should spend the morning with me.”
She looks up to see that Justin is talking to Isaac, holding him under his arms so he can stand on wobbly legs.
“We can check the progress of the temple. I’m amazed every day at how much has been completed. No more trips to the city after this. They’ll come here to me.”
She finally interrupts when she isn’t able to stop the image from last night from superimposing itself on them.
“It’s too cold for him.”
“Nonsense.” Justin meets her eyes over Isaac’s head. “It’s a beautiful day. He could use a little fresh air, couldn’t you, Isaac?” He lifts the baby to face level then higher, earning a happy squeal, and a warning look from his sister.
Humoring her, he stands, moving to deposit the baby back in Iris’s lap.
“Just get him bundled up to your satisfaction and then we’ll all go.”
“Oh, so I’m invited too?”
He’s relieved to hear the teasing sarcasm in her voice.
“Of course, you are, dear.”
He smooths a hand over Isaac’s head and drops a kiss to his sister’s temple.
Inside the sanctuary is even larger than it looked from their porch atop the hill. It’s striking in its lines, even though the wood remains bare and the windows haven’t been installed.
The wind sings through the rafters now and she can just imagine how beautifully a choir’s voices will resonate.
“Another week and we should be able to move out of the tent and into here for good. The radio towers still won’t be fully functional for another month but we are so close to having our vision.”
He’s standing with Isaac in his arms where the pulpit will be though it too remains unadorned.
Her brother’s voice finds every corner of the space, raises goosebumps on her arms.
He will be magnificent here.
She realizes for the first time that the tree--their tree--is perfectly framed by the window directly behind Justin.
She realizes what it will look like when Justin preaches here and stretches out his arms to beseech the heavens.
It shouldn’t be dark and there shouldn’t be the sound of screaming all around.
They shouldn’t be standing in a field while lightning strikes around them.
It flashes and she recognizes the face of the figure hanging from the cross.
It flashes again and she recognizes the face of the figure driving a sickle into his heart.
Their son looks so much like his father.
“Iris? Is something wrong?”
Justin is only a few feet from her now, no longer backlit by the windows, no longer dying.
“Give him to me.”
She takes Isaac from his arms and when Justin starts to protest, she says, “I need to feed him,” and leaves her brother standing alone in his temple staring after her.
She makes the walk back to the house, clutching Isaac to her chest so tightly that he squirms and fusses and has started to cry outright by the time she lays him in his crib.
She cries until she’s choking, until there’s not enough breath left in her to pray.
The maid who serves dinner is different than the girl who made breakfast for them, Justin notes. He also notes that this girl’s hair is only a shade darker than his sister’s, as are her freckles. In form the girl could be a shadow of Iris's younger self.
It can’t be a coincidence.
“Where’s the other one?”
Iris barely glances up at him.
“The other girl, the maid.”
He tries hard not to lose his temper at her feigned ignorance.
“She just wasn’t working out.”
The anger spills over when she echoes his words from months ago.
“What are you doing?”
“We needed a new maid,” she says. “I hired a new maid.”
He tries her door later and finds it locked as it hasn’t been in weeks.
Vanity is her brother’s vice, but her skin will never be the same, will never fit her in quite the same way again, not since carrying Isaac.
Her mirror shows the web of faint pink scars that mark her, one that raises into a pale white arch and is a constant reminder of what she failed to do.
She always tests the water--it’s warm but never hot and never deeper than her fingers.
Her hand is always beneath his neck so he doesn’t bump his head on the porcelain or sink below the shallow water’s surface.
The water is warm but not hot this time. It rises to her elbows.
She remembers that the panic and the burning in her lungs were only momentary, that once she had taken that first deep breath of water, the second was easier. Oblivion came on quickly—until her brother’s hand had clutched hers in the cold, dark river.
His next breath had always mattered more than her own.
She pulls her hands away.
And finds that his next breath matters more than Justin’s.
It’s well past the time he’d typically be home and he’s in no mood for the angry din coming from the living room or to find the new maid pacing across the rug, frantically bouncing his screaming son in her arms.
When the girl sees Justin, her expression registers a strange mix of relief and fear.
Justin frowns. Iris is nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s his mother?”
“I’m sorry, Brother Justin,” she apologizes. “He’s been cryin’ all day.”
“Where is she?”
The girl glances reluctantly toward the stairs.
“She won’t come out of her room.”
Justin takes the baby from her, whispers, “Hush now,” across his downy head. He stretches his arms up, holding the baby over his head in that way Iris hates.
Their eyes meet and for a moment Isaac’s widen, temporarily struck by the change of perspective, but instead of the usual gurgle of laughter, he squirms fitfully and screams harder than before.
“Should I go down to the camp and find someone who’s got a little one too?” the girl offers. “Or I could try mashing somethin’ up for him--he’s big enough.”
“No. I’ll deal with this.” He’s already heading out of the room, Isaac tucked against his chest, when he calls back over his shoulder, “You can go.”
Upstairs he tries Iris’s door to find it locked as he knew it would be.
“Iris, I know you hear him.” His voice is soft, almost too calm, but the threat beneath is clear, so clear that it drowns out the fear that prompted it.
When there’s no response but silence from the other side of the door and another hiccupping wail from the baby in his arms, he forgoes the subtleties and hisses, “Open this door, Irina, or I will take it off its hinges!”
The door cracks open just enough for him to see his sister, her face as red and tear stained as their son’s.
“He’s eating me alive,” she sobs. “There’ll be nothing left when he’s done.” But even as the words leave her mouth, she’s unbuttoning her dress, reaching for the baby.
Justin feels the whiplash of relief—that’s she alive and physically unharmed—to concern in quick order.
She’s collapsed into her chair, one hand against her forehead and the other braced against the baby’s back as he nurses.
“I think we need to hire someone to help you with him.”
She doesn’t look up at him, mutters, “YA ne nasha mat'.” <“I’m not our mother.”>
“I’ll have the maid see to it tomorrow.”
Two days later a woman he had interviewed himself comes to help with the baby.
Two hours later—he’d been told when he arrived home that evening—Iris had packed the baby’s things and a bag of her own and marched to the empty house next door.
His first thought was to send one of his men over to fetch her, not to reward this childish behavior with a response, but he remembers too vividly the gruesome scene that unfolded before Isaac’s birth and goes himself.
He prays, ceaselessly, unconsciously on the walk over, that they are anywhere in the house but that room. It’s been cleaned even though no one has been living there, the mirror replaced, but the grout between the tiles is still stained.
Much to his relief, he finds her sitting at the kitchen table, Isaac on a quilt in the floor beside her.
“Come back to the house.”
When she ignores him, the anger starts to build again.
“I don’t have time for this.”
“No one asked you to be here,” she snaps.
He slams his palms flat on the table and stares at her.
“Stop this and come home.”
She doesn’t answer so he does what he knows will draw a response.
“Iris, it’s freezing in here.” He walks past her and starts to pick up the baby. “He should be at home.”
“Don’t touch him!”
He leaves Isaac where he is for the time being and lays his hands on Iris’s tense shoulders, kneads his fingers into them.
“You know better than anyone how easy it is to get the hospital to come and take another poor soul away.”
His words are quiet, calm, against her ear.
“Everyone knows how troubled you’ve been lately. Surviving such a vicious attack--widowed, alone, and with a new baby--it’s no wonder the stress was finally too much for you.”
She turns to glare at him, eyes glassy with unshed tears.
“Come back home with me now or so help me I will make the call myself and you will never see him again.”
All the quiet and calm has left his voice when he asks, “Do you understand?”
He picks Isaac up now and she grabs his arm.
“You’re frightening him--”
“I won’t be watched in my own home! I can’t stand another pair of eyes watching me--waiting for me to slip up.”
“It’s for his sake.”
“You really don’t understand, do you?” She starts to laugh and he has to resist the urge to shake her until she stops. “I’d have thought your sense of self-preservation was stronger.”
Surely she isn’t threatening him.
With one hand he pulls her up and out of the chair, knocking it over and leaving her stumbling into his chest.
He’s head and shoulders taller than her, could easily break the arm he’s holding.
“We were never careful, Alexsei. Not in all those years. Don’t you ever wonder why it happened that night and not any of the others?”
He wants to hurt her, as much as he has since that night she confessed and proved herself just as wicked as himself, but willfully so—but the much-beloved product of that night is crying against his shoulder.
He lets her go and pushes her away.
“I’m taking my son home. When you’ve composed yourself, you can join us.”
He’s changed both of them for bed—searched Isaac over for any signs of harm—by the time he hears Iris open the front door.
She goes to her own room instead of coming to his and demanding the baby.
Her door isn’t locked, isn’t even closed when he crosses the hall. She’s in bed, her back turned towards the door and he’s not sure if she’s asleep or if this is the start of the reign of silent martyrdom to come.
The baby is asleep, however, and thankfully remains so when he’s laid in his crib.
He’s about to leave when Iris’s voice stops him.
“YA vasha sestra, Alexsei. Vy ne dolzhny smotret' na menya tak, kak ty.” < “I’m your sister, Alexsei. You shouldn’t look at me the way you do.”>
This is an old game, always equal parts punishment and apology—and she knows exactly the effect it will have on him.
She feels the mattress dip behind her and knows exactly how hard he’ll already be when he presses against her back.
“You shouldn’t sneak into my bed and try to touch me.”
He finds just the right curve and angle of her to move against, puts one hand on her hip and doesn’t dare to move it beneath her gown.
“We should pray for strength.”
He’s far less clumsy than he was the first time they did this but nonetheless frantic, rubbing against her though his pajamas, through her gown.
“We should pray for guidance, to be forgiven for our thoughts.”
The mattress creaks under the strain.
“Someone will hear us.”
She tangles her hands in the sheets. It’s always as difficult not to touch him as it is to keep him from touching her.
“God will see us.”
“You’re my brother. You shouldn’t have given me a son.”
“Zhestokim sestra."< “Cruel sister.”>
“Aren’t you going to greet me with a kiss, Judas?”
She rises to her feet and takes him in from head to toe, as unsurprised by his accusation as only she could be.
“Disappointed?” he taunts. “I’m remarkably unharmed but I’m afraid I can’t say the same for Norman.”
He’s pleased that she flinches. He’ll leave the details—a stroke, poor thing, like a father to them—for later.
“Do you feel unburdened?”
She’d obviously made Norman her confessor, had told him all her greatest transgressions, all their blackest sins.
But an exorcism? Something out of Catholic fairytales and so laughably ineffectual?
“Please help me, because I’ve been trying to understand--I really have--and I just can’t. What were the two of you hoping to accomplish with this little stunt?”
She steps dangerously close to him. “I tried to tell you”—is standing right in front of him, chin tilted defiantly—“You should have let me when I still could.”
The implication of what she is saying sinks in.
“Do you hear yourself?”
“I didn’t ask for him! I begged you not to--”
His fingers close around her throat and press forward until her back hits the wall and he can see her teeth jarring.
“Go ahead and play the martyr but you would do well to realize how thoroughly you could be replaced.”
“Look out that window.” His hand leaves her throat to grab her chin and turn her head. “My church is built.”
He leans in closer; his next words are rasped into her ear.
“That sweet little girl who comes and scrubs the floors and fixes our meals--you really outdid yourself picking her--she’d feel just like you used to.”
He lets her go.
“Isaac would never even remember you.”
The newspaper proves a useful diversion this morning, a thin shield separating him from his current state of domestic affairs.
A small fist manages to make contact and crinkle the paper as Isaac lunges forward in his lap.
He folds the paper and lays it beside his plate.
Iris is seething.
She doesn’t say a word as her son is passed off to his nurse.
She’d decided days ago, had waited for just the right--and increasingly rare--opportunity, but still can’t quite make herself open the car door.
These kind of people travel, are never in the same city for more than a few days. Movement equals safety. It’s a lesson she had learned from her mother.
“I have money,” she says. Much more than thirty pieces of silver. “Enough to pay for his upkeep, to make it worth your while.”
The small man kicks at the dust with his foot and stares at her from under the brim of his hat.
“We don’t just take in strays.”
“I’ll kill him if you don’t take him.”
“Whoa, now,” he warns, his concern belying his earlier comment. “What makes you think you’d hurt your baby?”
“I’m not talking about the baby.”
Isaac’s fingers have found the beads of her necklace and she reaches unconsciously to untangle them as she has dozens of times before.
The man looks off in the distance like he’s heard a voice in the wind and frowns; Iris hears nothing but the sound of her son babbling against her shoulder.
“Wait here,” he says, marching off towards a green trailer, one of many that fills the camp. He climbs the four steps leading towards its door with some difficulty then pulls it closed behind him with a sigh.
No more than five minutes later, Sampson limps down the stairs and mutters, “God-dammit.”
He stares up at Isaac and then looks to Iris.
“Well, what’s his name?”
“You don’t say?” He smiles and shakes one of the baby’s chubby legs until Isaac looks down at him. “Guess we could use a bit a’ laughter around here.”
He reaches up with both hands and Iris feels Isaac’s weight leaving her arms, the tug on her neck as Isaac’s fist has hold of her necklace again.
She pries his fingers away and feels the cameo fall back into place and something far heavier settling over her.
“He wants to see you.” Sampson jerks his head in the direction of the trailer he’d just exited and yells off into the thick of the camp, “Ruthie!”
Isaac starts to cry.
The worn letters read “Management” and “Keep Out” but she’s been issued an invitation.
She shouldn’t, but she looks back just once.
A heavily pregnant woman scoops Isaac from Sampson’s arms with practiced ease. A snake tattoo peeks out from the shawl draped around her shoulders as she settles him on her hip and wipes at his cheeks with her free hand.
The wood is worn beneath her fingers but the door opens with the slightest touch.
Instead of a pillar of salt to be scattered at the whim of the winds, she’s her ten-year-old self standing in the drawing room of their house where it’s warm despite the blankets of snow outside.
It makes no sense and might as well be another dream.
Her father is here with her.
Her son is out there with strangers.
It’s likely that this final sacrifice has severed the last threads of her sanity, she thinks.
Yet the voice from behind the heavy burgundy curtains is her father’s, but not.
“You look so much like her, Irina.”
He knows her and he knows her mother.
“She said you were a bad man.”
“She was a smart woman, but not strong.”
There’s a strange mix of affection and revulsion in his tone, one that must be blood-deep as Justin has mastered the same dichotomy when he speaks to her.
“I wonder how you’re going to walk away from that child outside.”
“There’s no other way.”
“He won’t be happy with you, will he?”
He doesn’t understand--and neither will her brother--the simple truth that even her broken mother in her last days had known, that Alexsei must be protected at all costs, above all others.
“He might finish what he started that night.”
Then she’ll welcome the feel of his fingers around her throat one last time.
“It does something peculiar to a father to have his son taken away.”
Daughters, wives, and sisters have never been integral to this equation she knows.
“ My Irina . Almost broken beyond repair.”
But she sobs when her father says her name with such unadulterated affection.
“Take my hand.”
“ Where is he? What did you do? ”
“I had to choose. And I chose you , Alexsei. Just like I always have.”
And the end. It only took 11 years to finish.
He barely moves when a sandy-haired boy runs full force into him.
Justin shoos away his guards as they start forward.
“You should look where you’re going, young man.”
He lays his hand on the boy’s skinny shoulder --and watches him standing tip-toe to slip a grubby hand inside a glass jar, grabbing a fistful of peppermint sticks. His eyes scan the general store before he shoves the candy into his pocket .
Instead of apologizing, instead of crying and promising to never steal again, the boy just stares up at Justin with strangely knowing eyes.
He holds out a hand and offers up a piece of the candy, now gone sticky from his sweaty hands.
Justin takes the peppermint from the boy and smirks down at him.
How brazen .
The boy’s eyes dart down the street to the corner where another boy is watching them.
It’s utterly impossible but his chest seizes in the same way it had all those years ago when he’d seen him for the first time.
This boy is fair like the other, though his hair has an auburn cast to it and Justin can see the freckles across his nose and cheeks even from this distance.
The boy in front of him turns suddenly and runs down the street.
He hands the waiting boy most of the candy before they both disappear down the alley.
The look-out or the master-mind? Justin wonders, then turns to the guard at his right and commands, “Follow them.”
“Michael! Isaac! You gonna get left!”
Jonesy straightens the baseball cap on his head and lifts himself awkwardly into the truck.
He looks back to see a large man lift the last, massive, bag of supplies and toss it into the bed of the truck with ease.
“Got that, Gabe?” he jokes.
The Strong Man nods and grins as two boys run down the street in his direction.
Their dirty faces are smeared with some kind of candy that neither of them had money for.
Probably a good thing we’re heading out soon , Jonesy thinks.
Gabe grabs them up by the straps of their overalls, lifting them until they’re kicking and laughing.
“Ma’ll skin us if we’re late,” Gabe warns.
He settles both boys into the bed of the truck with the sun and the moon painted on the door.
“Some circus outfit.”
“Find them and bring me that boy.”
“Lemme’ go!” the boy demands. His feet, bare and just as filthy as the rest of him, scarcely touch the ground as he struggles to free his thin arms from Stroud’s grasp. He glares up at the man and threatens, “My big brother will crush you like a bug.”
Stroud chuckles, impressed with the little thing’s spirit, even if he had been a pain in the ass for the past two days.
“Put him down,” Justin orders. The boy’s tenacity is impressive but he doesn’t like watching him struggle.
Justin glances at the faded photo laying on his desk--himself as a child of six with Iris only a few years older. He’s been studying the picture in the week it took Stroud to find the boy and bring him home and now he’s absolutely certain.
The boy standing in front of him could have stepped out of the photo; the resemblance is uncanny--as is the way the boy is measuring him with sharp blue eyes. That expression is unmistakably Iris’s.
This is their own Isaac, alive—despite the worst fates his mind could conjure thanks to Iris’s continued silence on the subject—and relatively well, and standing just a few feet from him.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
The answer is too fast and too freely given.
“I don’t think you’re telling me the truth.”
The boy shrugs.
“Do you know who I am?”
“The preacher man from the radio.”
That answer is also too quick to be coincidence.
“Brother Stroud, have my sister bring in some lemonade for our young guest.”
As the man leaves, Justin asks, “What about your parents?”
There’s another lie ready on the boy’s tongue he can tell.
“Your real parents?” he asks again.
“My pa died and my mama was sick.” The child fidgets with the strap of his overalls. “She gave me to my Ma when I was a baby so I’d have a family when she died.”
So Iris had made an orphan of their child when he should have been here with them, raised at his father’s knee as the ministry was growing, readying to take his rightful place one day.
“How very selfless your mother must have been.”
The boy’s mouth hardens, the insinuation not lost on him.
“What if I told you that the people you were with had been lying to you?”
“They ain’t liars.”
Justin inwardly cringes at the boy’s diction, curses Iris again for the sheer state of his son, as dirty and skinny and rough as any poor soul who ever wandered into their camp from the road.
“Or maybe your mother was the liar.”
Angry now, Justin sees. He’s hardly difficult to read. His eyes narrow and one of his small hands balls into a fist against the worn denim of his overalls.
“What if I told you that you had a real family and a real home? That I was your uncle? ”
The boy looks straight at him.
“Now who’s lyin’?”
“I don’t know why the maid couldn’t have done this--”
The scene unfolds much as Justin had expected.
Their son turns at the sound of her voice and she stops, just stares at his face until the cold glass in her hands falls forgotten to the floor.
She says, “No,” as if that word alone would exorcise the spirit standing between them.
When she finally tears her eyes away from the boy, very real and shifting his small frame from one foot to the other, she looks at him and for a moment he almost regrets this ambush he’s staged.
“What have you done?”
“I’ve brought our son home.”
He thinks briefly that she is collapsing, almost moves to catch her from reflex, but realizes she has merely bent to pick the pieces of broken glass up off the floor.
In the second it takes for the child standing in front of her brother to turn his head and look at her, she realizes that all the seconds and minutes and hours, the days and weeks and years--more than five--every torturous moment has been for nothing.
In a single moment Justin has undone everything, and she’s as close as she will ever be to hating him--can only ask, “What have you done?” and know that he still doesn’t realize--that to spite her, he’s damned himself.
She can’t look at either of them, they look so much alike.
There’s glass to be cleaned up, something she’s broken and can remedy.
The boy—her son—takes a step towards her and she holds out her hand to keep him away, shakes her head and collects a palm full of the largest pieces.
He’s barefoot and she wants to tell him to be careful but he tiptoes over to crouch at her side.
He’s beautiful, a perfect melding of Alexsei’s features just as she remembers them and her coloring, and she can’t take her eyes off him now that he’s so close.
She won’t be strong enough to make the same decision twice, but he wipes at her cheek with the same fingers she had counted the night he was born. He whispers into her ear, a secret just between the two of them: “Don’t cry, Mama. This is my House, but not for a long time yet.”
There’s a kitchen full of food left over from the lunch the maid had prepared.
Iris will cook for him herself tomorrow, anything he wants, but when she’d asked if he were hungry he’d said yes, so she’s flitting back and forth from the counter to the table, looking at him as if he might disappear again before she can warm the food for dinner.
He sits across the table from Justin and they watch each other.
He swings one dusty foot underneath the table.
When Justin lifts the glass of milk next to his plate, so does the boy.
He gulps it down in one go and wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand after.
Justin glances up to see Iris’s back turned and does the same, finally earning a faint smile from across the table.
She runs the cloth over his bird-like shoulders, can see the outline of his ribs, and fights back an apology.
He marches his fingers across the tiny spots on her other forearm where it rests on the edge of the tub.
“You have freckles too.”
“Just like yours.” She pinches the bridge of his nose where the sun has baked the freckles in and he laughs.
“Are you clean yet?”
He shakes his head and squeezes the bar of soap between his fingers until it shoots out and hits the side of the tub.
“You’ll turn into a prune,” she teases, but he looks at her for a moment as if she might be serious, and the same urge to beg his forgiveness rises again.
They’re curled up in her bed the way they used to when he was a baby. She memorizes every new detail, from the slight way his bangs are gapped that shows now that his hair is damp and curling against his forehead to the way he pinches the loose fabric of the shirt he’s wearing—one of Justin’s undershirts that falls to the boy’s shins—and twists it between his fingers where the nails have been bitten short.
He’s studying her with just as much intensity.
He whispers, “You’re different.”
She knows it’s not the deepened lines around her mouth or at the corners of her eyes that he’s referring to. She thinks about the trailer, about the scarred hand that had taken hers.
“Someone very unexpected helped me.”
“Management?” Isaac asks, a hint of wonder in his voice.
She nods and doesn’t ask how he knows the things he does.
Justin is surprised her door is standing open; he had expected to find it permanently locked.
Mother and son are curled in her bed facing each other, lost in a quiet conversation.
As he watches their son mouth the word for mother, it occurs to him that he’s never spoken their language with anyone but Iris since coming to this country--their own mother had strictly forbid it as they traveled, lest the bad men overhear. It’s their own secret language, shared now with their son.
“Now me,” the boy says, eagerly.
Isaac frowns. “Sin,” he repeats.
Iris shakes her head, says, “Moye serdtse,” and puts a palm against her chest. “My heart.”
“And him?” he asks, pointing towards the doorway, as Justin finds himself the object of the lesson.
He leans against the door-frame, waiting for Iris’s answer.
She repeats the phrase.
He takes it as a sign that his presence won’t be completely unwelcome and comes close enough to sit at the edge of the bed.
He points to his chest and enunciates, “ah-TYEHTS.”
“Father,” Iris explains, adding another word to their lexicon that won’t go beyond these walls.
“Oh . . . tie . . . yet,” Isaac tries.
“Almost. It’s harder to say than the word for mother.”
The boy smiles at him and looks to his mother, silently asking for permission.
Iris nods, scoots back closer to the wall and pulls Isaac against her chest, tucking his head beneath her chin.
They leave just enough room for Justin to join them. He lays down on his side, head propped on an elbow so he can watch both of them.
When he’s asleep, Justin kisses the top of his head and breaths him in.
“It’s not really possible for him to smell the same, is it?”
Later, when Justin is asleep, a small hand finds her face in the near-dark.
She holds Isaac’s palm against her cheek and whispers, “Promise me that I won’t be here to see it.”
“You’ll go ahead to prepare a place.”
Weeks go by and Isaac seems to be permanently attached to Iris’s skirts.
This morning, however, he has perched himself on a stool as Justin is shaving and just stares at him silently.
Under the scrutiny, Justin nicks his chin with the blade and frowns. He dabs the tiny swell of blood with his thumb and concentrates on his cheek.
“When will it be black?”
Justin’s eyes meet an identical pair as he looks away from the mirror and down into the boy’s curious face.
He studies his reflection, the red already beading up on his chin again.
Eventually he has his own room, his own bed, though he very rarely spends the entire night there.
Along with the unruly waves of his hair from his father and the freckles across his forehead from his mother, he also inherits the dreams that haunt both.
Sometimes he cries out and they find him staring wide-eyed into the dark, his thin chest jack-hammering like a rabbit’s.
Sometimes they hear the sound of frantic feet running down the hall towards one of their rooms and meet him with open arms.
Occasionally Iris finds them in Justin’s study in the early hours of the morning, some book or other—nothing that should really interest a small boy—spread open on her brother’s knee and Isaac asleep against his chest.
Occasionally it’s not enough for him to stutter out familiar, disturbingly graphic images as his father sits on the edge of his bed and listens.
Those nights Justin carries him to her bed.
Sometimes he insists that Justin stay. He burrows between them, squirming and fighting sleep, repeating all the words he’s learned—“mat', otets, syn; kniga, ptitsa, rubashki; lozhka i vilka” < “mother, father, son; book, bird, shirt; spoon and fork”>.
They’d rarely said a civil word to each other in the years during Isaac’s absence. But what had been between them, that went beyond any language, had never been silenced or satiated—though it’d taken on the tone of punishment and penance, and only ever accidentally pleasure.
In the months since Isaac’s return they’d called a kind of entente.
The way he’s leaning against his desk with his broad back to the open windows, no one outside can see how he’s loosened the buttons on her skirt to make room for his hand, how his fingers have worked a flush up her throat and how her hand is braced against his upper thigh, fingers tracing a tantalizing path, one that promises to have her on her knees soon.
But instead of squeezing her eyes shut and biting her lip to signal her surrender, her eyes narrow at something over his shoulder.
“What’s he doing?”
Justin looks over his shoulder to see their son bending down to pick something up out of the dirt as a handful of other children scatter away.
He pulls his hand away from his sister, wipes it absently on his trousers as he turns to face the window.
Isaac looks up at him.
It’s probably just a trick of the afternoon light but he could swear a shadow has fallen over the boy’s eyes.
Iris is already smoothing down the lines of her skirt and heading out the door before he can mention it to her.
When he reaches the yard, Iris is standing in front of the boy, eyes wide.
“Put that down.”
Isaac throws the dark, feathered shape to the ground and stares at it.
“Did you do this?”
He nods, doesn’t look away from the ground.
“I wasn’t sure.”
“Sure? About what?”
The boy just stands there; he scuffs the toe of his shoe into the dirt then kicks it at the limp form before him.
He rarely misbehaves and is even more rarely scolded by his mother, but her angry tone has no effect.
When Justin says, “Answer your mother,” the boy looks up at him with eyes that mirror his own.
“Can you fix it?”
There’s a note of hopefulness in his voice that makes Justin wish his answer wasn’t so obvious.
Justin kneels down to look closer at the bird. Its neck and wing are twisted at impossible angles. A dull film is already starting to form over its one visible eye.
He looks at his son, eye-to-eye now.
“That’s what I thought.”
Isaac’s face distorts as angry tears run down his cheeks. He kicks the bird, sending it rolling across the yard.
“I couldn’t either,” he yells, running to sit on the front steps and bury his head against his knees.
Justin rises from his crouched position to watch Iris hurrying after him to wrap her arms around his shoulders and pull him to her chest. She kisses the top of his head and whispers something Justin can’t make out against his hair.
He looks back down at the dead bird, taking in its black-blue feathers and the sharp lines of its beak, realizing for the first time what it was: a crow.