“Is it time, Paw-Paw?”
“Almost, child.” Brantlee Neville straightened despite his crooked back. Hens clucked and scattered when he stomped up the worn boards to the stoop of the brick house. The wind moaned through the cracked windows and stirred the tattered lace curtains.
Five generations of Nevilles had been born in this house–in the small yellow room tucked behind the kitchen. And now, honor demanded he leave it and do the unthinkable.
“Will it be a long trip?” Large brown eyes peeked at him over the top of a quilt. Bruises stained the pale skin underneath. The girl shifted in the cane-back rocker but the chair didn’t move. The wood had been flattened by years of sitting and waiting.
“As long as it takes.” Lee patted his granddaughter Sammy’s head. Matted brown hair rasped against his callused palm before she winced and shrunk away. His chest tightened painfully as he slipped around her chair to reach the window. His hands shook when he looped the cotton braids from his late wife’s rug through the bent nails on the porch ceiling. His eyes stung from the earthy scent of potato alcohol and death.
Just a little more and he’d be done.
The journey to fulfill a long ago promise would begin.
And everything his family had worked for during the last hundred years would be destroyed. Except the land. He wouldn’t sour that, no matter how much his step-daughter deserved it.
“It’s pretty.” Sammy smiled, her two front teeth white buds in her mouth. She gestured to the swags of alcohol-soaked fabric hanging from the porch roof.
“Isn’t it just.” The porch rail cut across his behind when Lee stepped back to admire his handiwork. The faded red and blue material swayed from the eaves, scraping away the peeling paint whereever it brushed. Taking a flint from his pocket, he tumbled the rocks around in his palm. “You got your dolly?”
“Uh-huh.” Sammy shifted inside the quilt until a doll’s head poked through. Flour paste sealed the crack in the porcelain head. Tufts of blond hair waved from the holes in the faded yellow scalp.
“Do you think you can git into the cart by yerself?”
“I have to.” She nodded. For a moment, wisdom overshadowed the pain in her eyes. Very carefully, she lowered one leg then the other. She swayed for a moment, steadied herself on the chair’s arm before taking a halting step forward.
Lee blinked. The disease had whittled away at her once sturdy legs and left her with the tell-tale swollen cadaver belly. Bruises marred her pale skin in hues of green, yellow, blue and purple. He fumbled with the flints before sparking a flame. The cotton caught fire, flaring in a bright white light before dulling to a steady burn.
Tucking the stones into his pocket, he grabbed the quilt then loped down the steps.
Sammy stood next to the cart bed. Her bottom lip bled where she bit it.
“Don’t you worry about your Papa none.” Lee scooped her into his arms.
She cried out softly and a tear slipped down her cheek.
“I know it hurts, child.” Every touch caused her pain and bruises. So many bruises. Swallowing the lump in his throat, Lee set her on the nest of blankets and the thin feather mattress next to her father’s corpse. Blood stained the ropes and sheets wrapped around his son’s body. “But soon you’ll be better.”
If the travelers hadn’t lied.
If there was a healing place beyond Sanctuary.
Sammy wiggled on the cushion before holding out a thin arm for the blanket.
Lee knew better than to touch her again. The trip itself would test her endurance and God only knew what awaited outside their village. But he had to try.
“Brace yourself.” He waited until she wrapped her fingers around the edge of the cart before climbing onto the seat. Wood creaked. The breeze carried the scent of damp earth while stirring the cornstalks poking above the field. He settled into the worn spot and released the brake. When he flicked his wrists, the leather straps slapped the rump of his mule and the vehicle lurched forward.
He steered into the ruts down his drive. Piles of rocks marked where he’d pushed the wall over. Water leaked from the destroyed reservoir. He whistled tunelessly under his breath. The destruction hadn’t taken long at all. Of course a little hard work would set it all to rights. But those that coveted his land, didn’t want to work hard. Passing the remains of his fence, he turned left toward town without once glancing back.
Overhead, the sun neared its zenith. He picked up his cap and set it on his head. Damn, he’d forgotten protection for Sammy. Behind him, metal rattled before he heard a soft thunk. He glanced over his shoulder. Black oilcloth gleamed in the sun. “You remembered the umbrella.”
“Yes, Paw-Paw. Grandma gave it to me.”
“She did indeed.” That umbrella had been coveted by generations of women and had been a symbol of the Neville’s power. It was only fitting the last of the Nevilles take it with her.
He rode up the deserted street, past his neighbors’ houses. Chunks of black asphalt poked through the dirt road. Here and there, green sprouted in the dust. Raising his chin, he entered the town proper. Sun-bleached and sand-scoured buildings lined the green square. White paint peeled off whatever adornments remained on the red brick. Faded curtains fluttered in the breeze through open windows.
Up ahead, a crowd gathered around center stage but left plenty of space around the gazebo on the right. Metal lattice boxed in the wooden rectangle, and scavenged planks provided shade for the Actor’s Guild seated on the stage.
Cadaverous Irving Ridge, whose veins stood out like guitar strings, sat on the far left. He licked his lips while eying the strapping Dean boy. On his right, Miranda Collins adjusted her deep neckline–the better to display her perky breasts. New Guild members, Janice Hepburn and Stanley Grant sat to the right of Center stage, where Beatrice Cole prepared to direct their production.
Blood lust lay heavy on the air just as it always did on Opening Day.
Dismissing the five guild members, Lee spied his empty chair to the far right. So they hadn’t replaced him. But he was definitely no longer the star. He ground his teeth together. Despite the bad case of stage fright his son had exhibited, the Nevilles weren’t D-listers. Lee had one last performance to give.
And it promised to be the triumph of his forty-nine years.
True to form, the Leads stood stage left. He recognized the handful of men he’d gone to school with. Those five years had been the best ones of his life–carefree, full of hope and promise. If his plan worked, Sammy would live to enjoy them.
Dressed in their best clothes, the villagers parted before his cart. Patched skirts fluttered; tattered hems shifted over bare feet. A few hands reached for his mule before he cracked the whip and they retracted. No one was gonna take what was his.
A handful of women glared at him. Two men spat in his wagon.
“…deserves to die…”, “…unworthy devil…”, and “see how he likes it…” Scratched Lee’s ears. He raised his chin another notch. Fools and morons. He was better than them all. And today, he’d prove it. The Nevilles would always survive.
Conversations tapered off.
His mule tossed its head and slapped its tail at the flies buzzing around it.
Center stage, Director Cole pounded a metal meat tenderizer on the wood plank in front of the Actor’s Guild. “Producer Neville has arrived, a little late, but at least he’s present. Let Opening Day commence.”
Heads turned toward the clock face above the Guild’s marble offices. Not that it told the time. The hands had fallen off when he was a lad, and dust had caused the motor to seize years before that.
Director Cole rose a little from her seat and peeked at the Leads, penned by worn velvet ropes next to a small raised gazebo. “Jebidiah Moore, are you ready for your final soliloquy?”
Jeb lumbered up the three steps of the gazebo. With each stair he climbed, his gimpy leg thudded against the wood risers. “I am.”
Lee shifted on his perch. Lucky bastards. He hoped they enjoyed their time in the spotlight. He just wished they didn’t take so long to finish. No doubt due to their founding fathers all being actors, they all craved the spotlight. Soft snores stirred behind him. Sammy was asleep. There’d been a time when he would have awakened her, made her watch the action to instill pride in their thespian heritage. He tilted the umbrella to give her more shade.
Director Cole pursed her lips. Although she pinned Lee with a glare, her question was for the Lead. “Who have you designated as your understudy?”
Lee tightened his mule’s reins as Moore’s two grown sons puffed up their scrawny chests. He didn’t blame the lads. The Moore farm was prime farmland and would be the best, once Lee’s burned to the ground.
Moore speared his boys with a glance before addressing the Guild. “My daughter Nessie.”
Murmurs rippled through the crowd. His boys’ wives shrunk in on themselves.
The Guild bent their heads together to consider his words.
An orange-haired, flat-chested woman clomped up the steps and stood next to her father. Nessie stared at the crowd with one milky eye and one brown eye. Red scars crisscrossed her jaw and throat. The cancers had been cut out last year when she’d turned fifteen.
She had made it to the age of consent.
Lee’s hands tightened on the reins. Jeb’s horse-faced daughter would marry. The men would line up to court the spinster. Hell, you didn’t have to have your eyes open to begat children and any price would be worth it for that land.
Director Cole banged the meat tenderizer. “We abide by your script changes provided Nessie can perform her part.”
“She can.” Jeb swallowed and patted his daughter’s hand. After kissing her cheek, he took his place in front of her. He gripped the dark-stained rail. “I have given the best years of my life to Sanctuary. I will not waste my toil by squandering it in my old age.”
He raised his chin.
Grabbing her father’s hair with one hand, Nessie flicked her free wrist. Silver winked in the sunlight. She pulled the straight-edged razor across her father’s throat in one smooth stroke. Red seeped into the cut before blood spurted out.
The crowd rushed forward, cupping the crimson droplets and smearing it on their faces.
By the time Nessie finished slashing, Lee could see the white flash of the man’s spinal cord. As her part required, she held her father upright until the blood stopped flowing, then she pushed his empty husk over the railing. Zeb’s face hit the green grass first, then his corpse folded over it.
Damn, that girl had the makings of a fine wife. If he wasn’t leaving, he’d consider marrying her himself. She could give him a son worth a damn, and their property would be the biggest in town.
A soft mewl cut off his planning.
But he couldn’t think like that anymore. Sammy needed him and he’d promised.
Director Cole pounded on the table before rising to her feet. “Well done.”
The other four members of the Guild also stood. The ovation gave Nessie sole claim to her father’s property. After licking Jeb’s blood from her fingers, she folded the straight razor and curtsied. Director Cole’s youngest son trailed a daisy through the bloody dirt before offering it up to Nessie.
Inclining her head, she accepted the tribute.
Lee shifted on his seat. Nice touch. Women went for that sentimental shit. The lad would be on the casting couch in no time. Two men drifted away from the crowd and disappeared from his peripheral vision. Lee stiffened. The Guild’s bouncers were leaving before the final curtain. Time to shuffle the Acts.
Director Cole licked her lips, no doubt counting her acres before her son could secure the role of husband. She resumed her seat and pounded for order. “Mic Norton are you ready for your final soliloquy?”
The old man swayed on his feet.
Drugged. Lee’s spat in his direction before securing his reins. The fool didn’t even have the stage presence to take his final bow sober. Why had Lee’s family spent all these years trying to make something out of these cowards? They weren’t even fit for Chorus girl number two roles. “I have something to say.”
“Producer Neville, your cue is not until after the curtain calls.” Director Cole twirled the meat tenderizer in her fingers.
The ham thought to upstage him, did she? She had another think coming. “As per the original script, a Producer can switch up the acts should he so desire.”
Lee glared at each person on stage. He dared them to contradict him. Despite his son’s stage fright, he had another year as Producer until his own final soliloquy. One that would be denied him now. But he would retain his family honor.
And his granddaughter’s life.
Director Cole snapped her fingers.
The Dean boy scampered across the stage with the script. Bowing with a flourish, he offered a worn blue booklet to the director, who quickly fanned through the town’s charter.
Not that she could read it. Besides Lee, only Irving could make sense of the letters. He could tell her she was required to strip naked and dance a hula and she’d believe it, if Irving backed him. Bracing his feet, Lee stood on the cart. From his position, he stood at eye level with the Guild.
Irving cleared his throat. Director Cole turned her head slightly and he nodded. She thrust the book into the boy’s stomach and shooed him away. Irving ran his hand over the boy’s flanks when he passed.
“Very well.” The Director cleared her throat before smiling wide enough so everyone could see her canine teeth. “Will your son not be present for the reading of the roles?”
The bitch was enjoying herself. Lee forced his hands to his side. “Brad Neville is here. But as his sire, I am invoking my right to stand-in for him.”
“So be it.” She inclined her head. “Players, take your marks.”
The younger Guild members Janice and Stanley stroked their throats.
So, they too wanted blood. Lee grinned back. It would be his pleasure to deny them.
The crowd in his right peripheral vision shifted. His daughter-in-law lifted her faded yellow skirts as she climbed onto the stage. She kept her face averted but he saw the smile playing on her lips.
Blood pounded in Lee’s ears and his vision narrowed to a spotlight on the stage. His wife’s favorite dress. The whore wore his Lilly’s favorite dress! He sucked air through his clenched teeth and forced the trembling from his limbs. Calm. He needed to be calm.
The crowd twittered and whispered.
Alisha Dean-Neville stood to the right of the Guild and peeked at the audience behind her curtain of blond hair.
Oh, she was good. He’d give her that. Her cunning made her perfect breeding stock for the Nevilles. Lee would have put up with it too, if she’d done her part. But the woman had gotten greedy and now he would punish her.
Director Cole banged on her table. “Alisha Dean-Neville is cast as the Innocent Victim.”
Lee snorted. Innocent his ass. The woman hadn’t been innocent since she developed breasts and ambition.
“Brantlee Neville standing in for Brad Neville is the Villain of the piece and Samantha Neville is the Martyr.”
Applause exploded around him. Someone cheered.
And there is was. His kin a Martyr and Villain. Tainted, rejected by God. Lee’s knees buckled. He turned his weakness into a stoop and pulled a nine-inch knife from his boot. The blade winked in the sunlight. He’d show them the Nevilles were neither.
The members of the audience nearest him stumbled back a few steps.
Director Cole sat back in her chair. “Whenever you are ready.”
Lee clasped his hands behind his back. Since the Innocent Victim always took the first spotlight, he’d take his cues from her. Not that it mattered, his course was set.
Clearing her throat, Alisha tucked her hair behind her ear and stared at the audience. Her gaze skittered off him before landing to his right. “I have sinned before God and He has punished my daughter with Corpse Belly.”
Lee’s leg twitched. Could he have misjudged her? This defense wasn’t new; others had used it in the past. Others had failed in the past except when… His heart seized in his chest. Damn. Could she be carrying a new Neville… Was she sacrificing one child to save an unborn? He chewed on the inside of his mouth. Then why hadn’t she come to him? Was there still time to save the family property for his new grandchild?
Alisha dropped to her knees, cradling her belly. “While I was married to Brad, I lay with another.” She swiped at her dry eyes. “I hungered for him and gave into my passions. It was after that first time that Samantha became sick. When I conceived my lover’s child, Samantha’s illness returned.”
The crowd gasped.
Well, shit. He never should have taught the bitch to read. Now Sammy’s death would be all the suffering Alisha would suffer. The precedent had been set; he’d set the damn thing in his first year on the Guild. Lee glanced at his son’s body. And his boy had killed himself for nothing.
“Who?” The word scratched his throat as it left.
Director Cole pounded her meat tenderizer. “That is not relevant and as you are standing in for the Villain you don’t have the right to interrogate the Innocent.”
Lee speared the director with a glare and picked his nails with the knife in his hand. “By admitting to her sin, Alisha Dean-Neville rewrites her role as Innocent Victim and is now the villain. By default, I am now the Innocent and can ask questions.”
Fanning the Script, Irving nodded. “Neville is correct.”
Alisha wrung her hands before glancing at the Director.
White ringed Cole’s thin lips. “Very well, who is your lover, Villain?”
Alisha shook her head; blond locks slapped her cheeks.
Irving rubbed his swollen finger joints. “Answer or you will take your curtain call. You’ve already admitted your guilt.”
Lee’s lips quirked. Guess she hadn’t done her homework after all. It would be justice if the bitch died because of faulty plotting. He could almost forgive her for the loss of his son then. Almost.
Alisha hung her head. “George Cole.”
Laughter bubbled in patches around his wagon.
The director’s son. Lee inclined his head toward the soon-to-be grandmother. Well played.
Director Cole pounded on the table for silence. “As the Villain’s lover is already married, the Guild cannot force a marriage.”
Alisha’s bastard would be born a Neville. So both she and the spawn could inherit his family land.
Cole beamed at him in triumph. “Per the Script, the Martyr is to be presented for her curtain call. The Victim may choose to act as understudy, or Alisha may do so.”
Alisha rose to her feet and pulled a small blade from her waistband. “As it is my sin, I should be forced to do the honors.”
So they thought it was over did they?
“I have not spoken my lines.”
The audience hissed. Someone in the back called for the show to continue.
Lee would give them a show. Hoisting a leg over the seat back, he dropped to the cart bed. Sammy blinked up at him. Ignoring her, Lee hooked his son’s stiff arm. Muscles burning, he levered the corpse over the side and pushed.
The body hit with a thud.
A teenage girl yanked on the bloody blanket and held it against her chest. Taking their cue, two boys fell on the corpse. Others jostled for position. Flesh smacked flesh. Someone grunted. Soon it would be stripped of all possessions.
Director Cole toyed with her meat tenderizer. “Do you have anything to say that is relevant to the proceedings?”
The cart rocked as someone slammed into the side. “My son is dead. His life has been exchanged for my granddaughter. I will care for Sammy as is my right. Furthermore as his wife is without honor and isn’t carrying any blood relation, I blacklist her from any claim to my estate.”
Alisha stabbed the air with her knife. “You can’t do that!”
Director Cole rose and rested her hand on his daughter-in-law’s arm. “His final curtain is next year. Without a protector, the girl will be Martyred and you will inherit.”
Climbing into the front seat, Lee grabbed the reins. And now the fun part. “Since Sammy and I will be required to take our curtain calls next year, I find myself in need of an heir. To that end, I shall select another one.”
The crowd shifted. Faces, in their blood masks, turned toward him.
Now it was the director’s turn to squawk. “You can’t!”
Irving creaked to a stand. “He can.” Ripping the script out of the Dean boy’s hand, the Guild member shook it at the women. “Who do you name?”
Alisha swayed on her feet.
And now for the entertainment. “The first person to reach my land.”
For a moment, nobody moved. A heartbeat passed, then the crowd pivoted and lunged forward. The younger three Guild members jumped onto the crowd below, knocking a few people down. Alisha yelled and leapt onto their backs. Waves of motion as men and women swung and punched the competition, trying to get an edge. Director Cole smacked the Dean boy upside the head with her meat tenderizer before joining the fray.
A minute later, only Lee, Sammy and Irving remained. Lee pulled the cart alongside the stage.
Irving slowly lowered himself to the bench seat before digging a slingshot out of his pocket. “You know they’ve set up an ambush, don’t you?”
“I saw the enforcers leave.” Lee slapped the reins and turned in the opposite direction of his home. The mule cantered out of town and plunged into the brush. He knew just where the trap would be laid. Hell, he’d set it up years ago. “Having second thoughts about joining me?”
“Nope, I’m too young to take my Curtain Call next year.”
Lee nodded. “Let’s get this show on the road.”