I woke to what sounded like the slap of flesh, but the percussion was too rhythmic. I pulled myself from the dream that had been threatening to claim me again and rubbed my eyes with the heels of my palms. The bedside clock confirmed that it was barely past six in the morning, just light enough to see. The sound, when it came again, was coming from the exterior of the cabin rather than within and I could here that it was nothing like what I had first thought. I untangled myself from the wad of blankets around my legs before pulling a flannel button-up over my head and rumpled cotton sleeping shorts. After rinsing my mouth in the bathroom I went in search of Colt.
The back door to the porch stuck slightly, and ancient white paint flaked from the bottom of the door frame as I forced it open. I had learned that the actually temperature during the day was never as warm as I thought it was. Being so far up had the effect of making the sun feel stronger instead. In the shade, or in the thin light of morning, a chill pervaded the valley and gripped at its inhabitant until several hours after dawn. I wrapped my arms around myself and padded barefoot onto the deck and looked over the railing onto the gravel lot in front of the garage.
Colt had the maul above his head and with a deafening blow he brought it down on a chunk of drying hardwood. It cleaved in the middle and the two sides spun away from one another. I rested my forearms on the railing and shivered as a cold breeze ghosted my back. The wind tugged at the worn material of my shirt and sent my hair whipping passed the side of my face over the railing. Colt looked up and nodded at me before placing the next wood cut on the larger block. He split piece after piece in silence. Reach, place, lift, strike, repeat. The tempo beat at the ridge line to the side of the cabin and ranged in hollow echos through the meadow.
The raw pile of wood had diminished significantly and finally Colt delivered the punishing blow to a final piece. The two sides rocketed away from one another and Colt propped the maul against the block before mounting the stairs to the deck. Goosebumps had broken out across my bare legs from the cold but he had worked up a little heat from the morning chore.
“Couldn’t sleep?” I asked.
“Not a bit,” he said between heavy breaths. “I finally gave up trying about an hour ago. What about you?”
“I had trouble too,” I said.
Although he had looked at taut as a bow string while working, the effort must have allowed him some element of calm. His chest still rose and fell deeply, but the tension in his expression was beginning to relax.
“How about breakfast?” he asked. “That shirt makes it look like you aren’t wearing anything else by the way. You must be freezing.”
I lifted the hem to reveal the shorts underneath, but lead the way gratefully back into the warmth of the cabin.
Colt pulled a carton of eggs and a plastic sleeve of bacon from the ridge as I made my way toward the coffee pot.
“Are you still coming to church today?” he asked.
I had thought about this the night before. “Yes,” I said. “I think so.”
“Good,” he said. “But while we’re there, assume no one knows what happened last night. They will soon enough but it isn’t our story to tell or discuss. The police report will be available soon although they got there so late it will only be what Jace and I could repeat for them. I don’t think Alice wants to say anything more about it yet.”
“Didn’t they get there just after you?” I asked.
Colt smiled but regret and pity still permeated his gaze. “The nearest police station is thirty miles away,” he said. “It’s down in that tiny town along the road between the college town and Powder Ridge. It takes just under half an hour to get anyone up here. That’s usually one of the good things about living up here—the parties go unchecked but the residents help keep an eye on each other. Most of the time it’s nice, but less so in an emergency.”
“But the police will interview and ask questions,” I prompted.
“They will,” he said. “But it was late at night and verifying alibis is going to be a nightmare. Most people were probably home and plenty live alone like I typically do. And Alice didn’t see her attacker. He shoved her into a wall and never turned her around.
I felt that much worse for young girl
“All she knew was that he was a lot bigger than her,” he continued. “But considering she weighs about a hundred pounds soaking wet, that doesn’t rule many people out. Let’s try to think of other things for now.” His shoulders were starting to tense up again so I dropped the subject.
As Colt cracked eggs into the frying pan I pulled the lid from the tin of coffee grounds beside the percolator. I half packed the paper filter and poured water into the top of the machine. Usually, when I make coffee I make it so strong that if you hold it to a lamp you can’t see light pass through it. Then I load it up with milk and sugar afterward. My vice of choice has always been caffeine and during finals in school I can kill a two pots a day on my own.
“How do you take your coffee?” I asked Colt.
“With maple syrup,” he said. I must have twisted my face up because he laughed and said, “Try it, it isn’t half bad.”
“Where did you pick that up?” I asked.
“My grandfather used to drink it that way when I was a kid,” he said.
I found syrup in the cupboard for him and powered milk and sugar for myself. As the heavenly scent of dark roast lifted into the air I had to admit that his concoction did sound intriguing. I took a surreptitious sip when his back was turned but didn’t think it tasted as good as it smelled.
“We do need to go to the store you know,” I said as Colt set two omelets on the kitchen table and went to retrieve cutlery.
“Alright, alright,” he said smirking and placed a fork and a knife in front of my setting and just a fork beside his. “We can go pick up all your rabbit food and a couple other things too. Besides, I’ve got a couple friends down there you can meet while we’re at it. We’ll go after the service.”
More of Colt’s friends? I wasn’t exactly a loner but I tended to prefer having a couple close girlfriends while he seemed to be drinking buddies with half the town. My friends had all gone home for the summer and I found that I didn’t miss them as much as I thought I would. Coal Creek and Powder Ridge were too much of their own adventure, all-consuming in their vitality. So far though, I’d spoken mostly with guys. There had been a couple girls at the round party, but not nearly so many as there were boys now that I thought about it.
“Where are all the other girls?” I asked.
“Oh they’re around,” he said. “You guys are pretty out-numbered though. A lot of the girls don’t like the weather throughout the rest of the year and don’t come back, but plenty are hired on every summer. The ones who return regularly have massive egos that back up the ratio though. It’s almost two to one, guys to girls. ”
He was laughing openly now. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You get more of them than you like soon enough.”
I bit my lip, slightly concerned about what he meant but tried to push it from my mind. I got along with most people just fine, but I was not good at navigating girl drama and territory battles.
“There’s really only several rules though,” he said. “Don’t let any of the Bishops drink Everclear. Those six are usually at the heart of every fiasco that goes on up here. They’re typically the craziest, they’re almost always the drunkest, and they’re usually the most fun too. But all of em, especially the boys are good people. They’d drop anything for a friend no matter the circumstances.”
“How old are they all anyway?” I asked.
“Well Matt is twenty-two. Jace is twenty-four like me, and I think Drew is eighteen now. Stacey and Stephanie are the twins, and their twenty, and Kara is twenty-one. I have no idea how Jace’s sisters got that close in age. But there’s the four on one side, and Matt and Drew on the other. They pretty much all grew up in the same household though, and they’re all on their own up here.”
I smiled thinking of how friendly Drew had been at the party, and how easy Jace and Matt were to get along with.
“The last rule up here is don’t sleep around,” said Colt, jolting me back. “Some summers it can get borderline incestuous up here with people hopping in and out of bed with one another, but it’s too small of a community for that. It kind of depends on who gets hired each year. A couple people can inspire rowdiness in the others easily enough.”
He smiled with that wolfish grin of his. “It kind of goes downhill—or uphill from there, depending whose getting laid.” He winked and I blushed, unsure of what to say.
We ate slowly for a change and between the two of us we also killed the entire pot of coffee. Eventually Colt said that he needed to go do a little work at his shop. I hoped he would ask me to go with him, but he didn’t so I stayed put. I read and even managed to sleep a bit more before my alarm went off at eight-thirty. Getting out of bed twice in one morning before nine was something I usually sought to avoid, but there was no help for it.
Colt had told me to put on something relatively nice for the sermon. Just something clean really, he had said. Most everyone still goes in jeans and a collared shirt although a lot of the women wear dresses.
I opted for the dress, a pale yellow one with a straight neckline between the straps over my shoulders. It was far more girlie than anything I’d worn so far and adding an open white cardigan over the top only made me look more feminine still. My hair I brushed into soft waves and then, at a loss for what else to do, pulled my boots back on.
Colt came back about ten minutes after I woke. I was reading a magazine and working at a second pot of coffee when he sauntered through the door. He headed straight for his room and reemerged in a black button-down shirt and creased jeans. I couldn’t help but giggle.
“You ironed your jeans?” I asked and he smiled, looking me up and down twice.
“Well you look like you waltzed out of the fifties,” he said. “Would you like a vacuum cleaner to go with that ensemble?”
I resisted the urge to dip into a sarcastic curtsey. Instead, with my hands on my hips I mocked scolding him, “Just because I don’t like to dress this way doesn’t mean that I can’t.”
Colt threw his palms up, feigning defeat. “Alright, princess,” he said. “Let’s not be late.”
He grabbed a leather-bound book from the small table beside the front door before gesturing for me to exit. We walked side by side down the hill toward the peaked white church near the entrance to Coal Creek.
“Just follow my lead here,” he said out of the blue. “To say that these people are conservative would be the understatement of the century. We won’t pretend to be together here—that’s strictly in front of the younger crowd to keep the boys from acting like ants on a picnic.”
I glanced at him repeatedly from the corner of my eye but eventually directed my attention to the base of the hill. The surprise must have been evident on my face because he began chuckling. What had resembled a ghost town yesterday was now swarming with people and pickup trucks. As we neared about twenty-five people made their way beneath a hanging sign that read simply, Baptist Church of Coal Creek. Colt and I mounted the wooden steps to the church and he opened the door for me.
This is what the inside of a clown car must feel like, I thought. At least fifty people were packed into the two room building. They sat in the pews, stood against the walls, and generally filled the space with the buzz of familiar chatter. Children dashed between legs, and the ages ranged from newborns to ancient men and women with wrinkles so deep it looked as though the skin of their faces had been folded several times. I saw Walter Castle speaking to a black-haired woman whose back was to me. In better lighting and standing tall, I could tell that he was closer to his mid-sixties than early seventies as I had first assumed. All six of the Bishops were seated in one of the back rows and I recognized many of the other faces from the party a couple nights prior.
Colt was shaking the hand of a man with salt and pepper hair. “Officer,” said Colt nodding politely. “Glad to see they gave you the morning off.”
“Not entirely sure I am, Bucks,” said the officer. I was beginning to wonder if anyone up on this mountain called Colt by his real name.
“After last night’s business I can’t say that I was eager to be off the clock. That SOB better hope I don’t find him when I’m out of uniform.”
The officer wandered off again right as a sharply dressed man made his way to the front of the room and called for everyone to settle. Benches scraped and people rearranged themselves, but in hushed voices now. I was herded into a seat next to the twin Bishop girls but Colt backed away again toward the back of the room. I tried to stand to follow him but Stephanie or Stacey, not sure which, caught the hem of my dress and pulled me back into my seat.
“Unless they’re in a wheelchair the men only sit if there are spaces left after the women do,” she hissed. I raised my eyebrows, startled. Some of the men left standing were in their seventies or older and I couldn’t imagine sitting knowing some of their fragile muscles were probably trembling behind me. I tried to stand again and was instantly pulled back down a second time.
“I know, I know,” whispered the other twin to the side of her sister, “It’s ancient but don’t even think about insulting one of them by trying to give up your seat.”
Colt caught my eye as I swiveled my head toward the back of the room. He nodded once with his arms folded before him. Still feeling guilty, I turned to face the front.
A reverent hush fell within the building broken only by the occasional whisper of one of the younger children. The man at the front, who I now realized must be the pastor, spread his arms before himself and began to speak.
“Friends, family, and new members, let us bow our heads in prayer.”
I ducked my head as all those throughout the room did similarly.
“Heavenly Father, we come before you today bearing the sins of man and gratefully ask for your forgiveness. We cherish your guidance and hope you will continue watching over us in times of trouble and weakness. We thank you for the gifts that you have so lovingly bestowed upon us and we will strive to emulate your love and generosity. In Jesus’s name, amen.”
“Amen,” rang the chorus of voices.
“At this time will the children please head into the next room for bible study,” said the pastor.
Children leapt from their parents’s laps and went laughing and running through a door held open by a young woman in dark blue. Some of the older men along the back wall stepped forward slowly to fill the benches as women slid inward.
The pastor waited for silence. One of the twin ducked her mouth toward my ear briefly, “Don’t worry, we use the English Standard Version.”
I could only guess what she meant as the pastor began preaching in earnest.
“Proverbs one, verses eight through nineteen, please.”
I saw Colt fold back the leather cover of his book and flip through the pages.
“The Enticement of Sinners,” began the pastor.
Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching,
for they are a graceful garland for your head
and pendants for your neck.
My son, if sinners entice you,
do not consent.
If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
let us ambush the innocent without reason;
like Sheol let us swallow them alive,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
we shall find all precious goods,
we shall fill our houses with plunder;
throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse”—
my son, do not walk in the way with them;
hold back your foot from their paths,
for their feet run to evil,
and they make haste to shed blood.
For in vain is a net spread
in the sight of any bird,
but these men lie in wait for their own blood;
they set an ambush for their own lives.
Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain;
it takes away the life of its possessors.
The silence was penetrating within the church as he finished reading. The pastor allowed the stillness to stretch and it wound the congressional to the point of tension. Backs became straighter, hands were clenched tighter, and the silence pressed upward at the vaulted ceiling. I regarded one stony face after another and knew that word of Alice had made it throughout the town. There were several expressions of mild confusion, but the vast majority stared straight ahead, unblinking, unflinching, and unchanging as the pastor continued.
He spoke of salvation and protection by the Lord for ten minutes, and about the need to protect and be accountable to one’s neighbors. With his hands aloft, he spoke of the rewards of righteousness and I heard the soft whisperings of, amen, from several in attendance. Sweating lightly while casting his hands about more emphatically, he spoke of the punishments to be meted out and endured by the wicked. The chorus of amen grew louder still. His sermon hurdled to its crescendo as he spoke of divine condemnation for the abomination that attacked Alice Taylor.
Three dozen faces were flushed red and the rows of pews called, Amen!
The single word reverberated on all sides around me, sounding richer from the baritone voices at my back.I looked around, somewhat nervous to see that the entire congressional had boiled into a single breathing entity. In many places, people had clasped hands with their neighbors and whispered prayers hissed like a vent of steam.
“Proverb 10:9,” said the pastor. “‘Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out.’ Now is not the time to yield to temptation as it inevitably leads to greater transgressions.” He looked pointedly at several members of the audience. I noticed a subtle shifting from some of the younger girls and boys throughout the room. A pretty blond in the row in front of me turned her head slightly to the left and I watched as Drew Bishop returned her gaze briefly before dropping his eyes to the floor.
Amen, said Walter Castle’s voice somewhere behind me.
The pastor dropped his hands and fixed his audience with enormous dark eyes. “God’s will be done,” he said barely above a whisper.
The tension broke and people relaxed into the wooden pews.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “I leave you with Matthew 26:41, ‘Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ Do not fall prey to the temptations of the flesh.”
He drew breath and delivered his final advice, “Ladies, from 2 Timothy 2: 22, ‘So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.’ You’re actions must account for the weakness of men.”
The hair began to stick up on the back of my neck, but the pastor had called for the children to come back in and we were bowing our heads in prayer once more. Then the service ended and the little church drained through the front doors, funneling the congressional passed the pastor for handshakes and kisses on cheeks. Colt found me again and we headed for the door.
When it was our turn to pass the pastor said, “Ah, so this is Adrienne then.”
“Yes sir,” I answered.
“Adrienne,” said Colt, “This is Pastor Jacob.”
It occurred to me that the man’s name didn’t really suit his appearance. He was at least six-foot-two, had broad muscled shoulders, and a dark beard that matched his eyes and hair. He was only in his early thirties if I had to guess, a fact I had initially expected wouldn’t lend him enough authority in such an old fashioned town. But after hearing the power and weight that resonated in his voice, and watching the way his congressional reacted to him, his age seemed to be of little concern to anyone.
Being pinned by pastor Jacob’s gaze felt like being speared. Like he knew every biblical breech I had ever committed, from losing my virginity to the single tube of lip gloss I’d shoplifted as a thirteen-year-old.
“We’ll see you both next weekend I trust,” he said while looking at first Colt and then at me.
“Yes sir,” Colt said parroting me. Then we both stepped out into the morning air.
“He blames her,” I said stiffly as we drew away from the crowds up the road to the cabin.
Again, I said, “He partially blames Alice for what happened. That whole, ‘ladies anticipate the weakness of men’ bullcrap.” I could hear the edge of anger in my own voice. “He almost suggested that you men can’t even help it,” I threw at him.
Colt just looked at me and I found my irritation directing itself toward him.
“What you agree with him?” I accused.
His shoulder rocked back and he looked me carefully in the eye before saying, “She did do something wrong. She snuck out at night to meet a stranger in secret.”
I bristled anew but couldn’t ignore the logic in his statement. I said, “But it just seems so wrong to blame the victim!”
“Being the victim doesn’t automatically release you from responsibility, Adrienne. And people who seem kind and trustworthy aren’t always. She should never have gone.”
I shut my mouth with a snap, still upset but lacking a counter argument. What he’d said was simple truth. I found myself thinking darkly, but you’re still pretty much a stranger to me.
He must have read the thought on my face. “It was a risk we both took. You could have robbed me blind,” he said and cupped a gentle palm beneath my chin.
I didn’t shake him off because for whatever reason I couldn’t help trusting him.
“And I might have kicked in your door at night.” He continued, “So far neither of us have.”
He let go of my face and opened the front door.
“Just let me grab my keys and we’ll head down the mountain, alright?” he said.
“Alright,” I answered his retreating back.