In the darkest, coldest part of the night, four hours before dawn, Mary Durham escaped from the only home she had ever known.
For five hours she had lain awake in bed beside her husband, counting the seconds off on her fingers until they were sore and cramping. Slipping noiselessly from beneath the blankets, she crept through the pitch-black room. Unwilling to risk even the slightest light, for fear of waking her captors, she made her way around the silent house from memory. Over the years, she had completely memorized the layout of the building. Now the knowledge served her well, as she had to merely count her steps to know exactly where she was.
She dressed in the dark, pulling one of her baggy, shapeless dresses over her head and the swelling curve of her pregnant belly, still five months away from term. Next, a trip to the spare room, where the luggage she had carried in her own hands when she moved into Brother Ezekiel's house was kept. Padding on silent feet, she took a suitcase and a large duffel bag back to her room, where she filled them with dresses, socks, and underwear. She made no attempt to sort or fold. There would be time enough for that once she and Rebecca were out of the ungentle reach of the Church of the Holy Death and Fiery Resurrection.
When her suitcase was filled, she locked it, whimpering behind her teeth at the small click that resounded through the house, seemingly as loud as a shotgun. In the bed, her husband snorted, his huge belly and gray beard making him seem like an evil, malevolent Santa Claus. When, after an agonizing moment, no sound of discovery came, she ghosted down the hall to the dormitory where the younger children slept. In the dim glow of the nightlight, left on to aid the mother on duty, she filled the duffel with her baby's clothes and dressed Rebecca slowly, taking care not to wake her. In her mind she blessed her ability to sleep through anything less than a howling tornado.
One step left. Do I dare? Oh, Lord, please help me.
In the darkness, her jaw firmed. Trembling, she crept silently through the house to Brother Ezekiel's study. She opened the desk drawer where the monthly tithes were kept. Her fingers recognized the thick envelopes and the not-quite-paperlike feel of cash. Triumphantly, she slipped the envelopes into her pocket.
Too late to stop now, she thought deliriously. She felt an insane urge to laugh aloud. If they had caught me before, all I would have risked was a beating. Maybe a whipping. But stealing God's money? For that, they will stone me. And Becca will never see her mother again.
Fighting the desire to run, lest haste prove her downfall, she went back into the dormitory. Rebecca still slept. Slinging the duffel across her back, she picked up a suitcase with one hand and her child with the other. Stopping only to grab her heavy denim jacket, worn on cold days in the Utah mountains, and a set of car keys, she slipped out the front door.
In five minutes she had left the compound and her old life behind, heading east, Rebecca asleep on the passenger seat beside her.
Two years later
The balding, overweight man at the desk looked up and smiled. "Come on in, Mary."
She did, although the presence of two people filled the tiny, cramped office to bursting. "I'm leaving for the day. I was hoping...I was hoping you might have some extra shifts for me later on this week. Or over the weekend?" she asked hopefully.
Dennis Hayes, owner of the somewhat inappropriately named 'Maggie's Diner,' shook his head. "I'm sorry, kid. Not right now. But if someone calls in sick, you'll be the first one I reach out to. I know things are tough for you right now. How are the girls? You haven't brought them by lately."
The young woman smiled, transforming her tired face into something approaching the angelic. "They're fine. Becca's pouting cause I won't let her eat all her Halloween candy at once. Deborah was too young to really understand what was going on, but she liked dressing up."
"What did they go as?"
She pulled her phone out of the pocket of her waitress' uniform. "Debbie was a ladybug. And Becca was a bumblebee." She fumbled with the controls, then showed him the pictures of her two smiling children, dressed in their outfits and holding hollow plastic pumpkins, ready for candy.
"Cute," Dennis said. "Where did you get the costumes? They're really well done."
"I made them myself."
"You did? Wow." He looked closer at the tiny screen. "That's some really good work, Mary. I wish the garbage I bought my kids when they were younger was half as good."
She looked down at her hands. "My mother taught me to sew when I was a little girl. It's not that hard." She swallowed and looked up. "I've got to go and pick the girls up. You will let me know if there are any open shifts, right? I have rent due at the end of the month, and the girls' sitter, too."
He nodded. "I will. Go on, now. And bring the girls by some night for dinner. I'll pay. No reason why you shouldn't have someone wait on you for a change, rather than the other way around."
"I will," she promised, and left the office, thinking how lucky she was to have found this job so soon after quitting her first. The manager at that restaurant had reminded her far too much of her former husband, with his leering mouth and pawing hands. She had walked out three days after she had started, and never regretted the decision.
But Dennis was cut from a different bolt of cloth. He and his wife had started the diner thirty years ago, and it was a Des Moines institution. Mary had caught hints from the other waitresses that after his wife died a lot of the heart had gone out of him. He was content now to simply mind the store and let the cooks and waitresses run things. As long as they pulled a profit every month he didn't care. And with the diner close to both the Iowa state capitol and to some of the ongoing construction work downtown, they did a steady if unspectacular business. He could usually be found in the office in the back, a benign, fatherly presence.
Shrugging into her heavy denim jacket, she walked out into the dim November evening, shivering as the chill north wind struck her face. The weather had shifted for good, it seemed. It would be cold and miserable all the way through April.
She drove to the sitter's house, mentally counting the tips she had made during the day. The other waitresses had told her that the money was better during the evening shift. But her schedule revolved around the girls, and it had proven impossible to find someone who would watch them in the evenings.
In fact, she considered Diana Polk a gift from God. A widow whose husband had passed away several months earlier from complications from diabetes, she supplemented her social security check by babysitting young children. Since she had raised five kids of her own, Mary had no worries when she left the girls at her house early each weekday morning and went to work at Maggie's. And the cost of paying her was a lot less than it would be in a traditional daycare.
She pulled into the gravel driveway and got out of the car. As she did, a cold rain began to fall and she hurried up the front steps, where Diana opened the front door for her.
"Looks like it's getting nasty out there," she observed. She shut the door firmly behind them, cutting off the wind. Inside, the house was warm and comfortable.
Mary nodded, her eyes seeking out her children. Rebecca already had her jacket on, and was trying to help Deborah into hers. The activity was complicated by Debbie's squirming, as she seemed to want to put on her jacket herself. Mary smiled at the pair. From the time of Debbie's birth, Becca had appointed herself as a sort of junior mother to her little sister, helping her whenever she could. For her part, Debbie exhibited a strong-willed independence which made any effort to coddle her useless. The struggle between the two could provide hours of entertainment.
But she didn't have time to indulge herself now. She knelt down on the wood floor. "Deborah," she said. "Come over here, sweetheart."
At her voice, the young girl, nearly eighteen months old, came toddling over on sturdy young legs, her jacket clutched in her hands. "I do it," she said, her face set in a stubborn frown.
"All right," she smiled down at her. As Debbie struggled into the jacket, she helped only a little, then zipped it up as she spun around, displaying her work proudly. "Good job," she praised her, giving her a kiss on the cheek.
"Are you ready?" she asked Rebecca. Her oldest child lifted the carry-all, almost as big as she was, which held all the stuff that had to be hauled to Diana's house on a daily basis. She turned to the older woman, who had been watching the show with a look of amusement on her face.
"I have the money for last week," she said, handing over an envelope.
"Thank you, honey," Diana replied.
"I hope to pay this week on time," she continued, hating the apologetic tone in her voice. "But I've got to go grocery shopping tonight, and rent is due at the end of the month. I'm already a month behind. And with winter coming, I'll have heating bills, and-"
"Shh," Diana said, her wrinkled, careworn face lightening in a small smile. "I know you'll pay. You always have. You take care of yourself and your girls. That's the most important thing. I'm not going to starve to death if you're a few days late."
"Thank you," Mary said. Her throat threatened to close with emotion. It was strange that she had found more decent people, and more love and friendship, in Iowa, a thousand miles and more away from where she had been born, than she ever had from her birth family.
"We've got to go," she continued. She turned to the girls. "Who's ready to go grocery shopping?" she asked cheerfully.
"Me!" Becca replied excitedly.
"All right then. Let's go!"
The car was slow to start, grinding through several turns of the starter before the engine finally caught. She frowned at the dashboard as they made their way through the early-evening traffic to the grocery store. Behind her, in the back seat, Becca talked to Debbie, who was riding in the passenger seat. Or, rather, Becca talked while Debbie listened. The sound made Mary smile. Ever since her older daughter had been born, she had flown through life with an energy which sometimes made her feel old and exhausted.
Safely parked at the grocery store, she released the girls from the car-seats, sighing as she did so. Sometimes it seemed as if half her life was spent getting the girls out of car seats, or jackets, or coats, or their clothes when they needed to go to bed or get up in the morning.
And the other half was spent getting them into the same things.
With Debbie safely secured in her shopping cart, and Becca pushing a child-sized cart beside her, they made their way through the store. Over the past two years, Mary had come up with a system, and she stuck to it rigorously. Heavy on the fresh fruit and vegetables, light on the more expensive, processed foods. She dropped a half-dozen cans of store-brand beans into her basket, and generic soup into Rebecca's, smiling wryly as some of the other shoppers stood in front of the display cases, obviously trying to decide what to buy.
At the meat counter, she struggled with herself for a long moment, then splurged on a package of stew meat. It's worth it, she tried to convince herself. I can make stew sometime this weekend. It'll be a way to pass the time, and I can start teaching Becca how to cook. And I can take the leftovers to work and microwave them for my lunch break. It's nice getting cheap meals there, but I'm getting tired of fried food.
Her eye was caught as an elegant young woman, only a few years older than herself, walked by. Dressed in form-fitting jeans which clung to her hips and a silk blouse which outlined her breasts in such a way to leave little to the imagination, her cart was piled high with food.
Mary's lips thinned. I bet she never has to worry about whether the check to keep the power on will bounce, she thought. Or about whether the generic cereal you just bought for the kids will last until the next paycheck. Or scheduling her shopping trips around whether it's double-coupon day. Look at her! Flaunting her beauty shamelessly like a common whore.
Stop it. When you left the compound this is the life you chose. Would you rather be back there?
She shuddered. No. I am never going back to that life. And neither are my children. She tore her eyes away from the alluring young woman. It's not her fault she has money and I don't. Someday that will be me. And I will be able to buy Rebecca and Deborah everything they need.
Thankfully the lines were short on a Tuesday night. She placed the bagged groceries into the cart and headed back out into the cold, rainy evening. After strapping the girls back into the car seats, she packed the bags away in the trunk, then tiredly got back into the car.
"Time for home," she said, with forced cheerfulness, reaching for the keys. "What do you want for supper tonight, Rebecca?"
"Grilled cheese!" said her daughter, who was not a picky eater, thank God.
"That sounds good," she replied. Grilled cheese and soup. Nice and simple. And I'll be able to get some studying done before bed. She slotted the key into the ignition and turned.
Nothing happened. The engine didn't turn over. She stared at the ignition switch in shock, then pulled out the key, as if to make sure she was using the right one. She tried again, with the same lack of a result.
"Oh, no," she whispered. She got back out of the car, for the first time noticing how the interior light didn't come on. With an effort she manged to raise the hood, then looked down blankly at the dark mass of the engine block. Even if she knew anything about car engines, which she didn't, how would she be able to fix it in the dark with the wind blowing rain in her face, and her hands growing numb with cold?
Suddenly it all was too much for her. The stress of raising the girls on her own. The constant, gnawing worry about money. The schoolwork, the job, the not-so-subtle hints by her landlord that he would reduce her rent in exchange for certain "favors." God, how would she pay to get the car fixed? Would her one credit card, unused except for true emergencies, be able to cover the costs? Or would she have to dip into her meager savings?
What am I going to do?
Heedless of the driving rain, Mary leaned back against the side of the car, put her head in her hands, and cried like a child.
Eveline Kershaw nodded absently as the clerk handed her change back to her, then wheeled her cart out through the automatic doors and into the parking lot. A wind-blown spray of icy rain hit her face, and she pulled on her hat and gloves. She shivered as another blast of wind knifed through the thin cloth of her blouse, and she zipped up her black leather jacket, wishing she had had enough sense to wear something more appropriate for the weather and the season.
Had to be a slave to fashion, didn't you, Evey? She smiled wryly at her own thoughts. Inside her lace bra, her nipples tightened with the cold. No fun tonight for you, girls. Heather's moved out. And good riddance, too. She frowned at the memory of her former girlfriend.
Her steps slowed as she neared her car. A few spaces away, a woman was leaning against the side of an old Buick sedan, the sort of car which had gone out of fashion around the same time as Betamax and disco. The rain had turned her heavy denim jacket a dark blue in the overhead lights. Her hands were covering her face, as if she were weeping.
Frowning, she slowly loaded her bags into her trunk, pausing every few seconds to watch her. When she was finished, she had made no move away from where she was standing.
Longingly, she thought of her warm condo, only a short drive away. Oh, to hell with it.
She closed her trunk and walked over to the woman. "Excuse me?" she asked over the blowing wind. "Are you all right?"
The woman made no sign she had heard her. "Excuse me?" she repeated, somewhat louder, and touched her shoulder.
The response was immediate. The woman shied away violently, stumbling to a halt several steps away. The delicate, heart-shaped face she turned to Evey, framed in a mass of tumbling blond curls which escaped from beneath the brim of a shapeless stocking cap, was taut with fear. Her hands were clenched at her sides in a gesture of hopeless defiance.
She held up her hands, palms open, showing she wasn't a threat. "I'm sorry I scared you," she apologized. She nodded at her car. "I saw you from over there, and I was wondering if you needed some help."
"I don't..." she began, then cut herself off. "My car won't start. And I don't know how to fix it."
"Have you called a tow truck? Or a cab?" Evey asked, then immediately felt like an idiot. This woman's posture of helpless despair told the story in a way which made words unnecessary.
The woman shook her head. "I just found out something was wrong," she said.
"Well, let's see what we can do, then," she replied. She extended a hand. "I'm Eveline Kershaw."
The woman took it hesitantly. "Mary Durham."
"All right. The first thing we need is some light." She took out her key fob and popped her trunk. "I'll be right back."
Walking quickly, she went to her car and pulled the box with her emergency supplies into view from the back of the trunk. She snapped on the flashlight, nodding in satisfaction as the bright light illuminated the interior. Dad, you're a horse's ass in a lot of ways, but I'm glad you taught me how to prepare. And a little bit about cars.
She walked back over to Mary's car and shone her flashlight under the hood. She winced as she took in the cracked hoses, the grime-covered carburetor, and the poorly-maintained engine. The battery, particularly, looked to be in very bad shape. She shook her head as she looked at the leads and wiring. There were clear signs of corrosion around the terminals.
A few questions to Mary told her the symptoms, and she had a pretty good idea what the problem was. "I think you have a bad connection to your battery. So no juice is getting to your starter. Which is why the engine won't turn over.
"I want you to get in, but leave the door open. I'm going to jiggle the connectors around. If I'm right, your interior lights should come on when we get a good connection.
"When that happens, I want you to start the car right away. That way you can at least get home. Then you can replace the battery. Also the wiring to the alternator." She frowned, looking at the balding tires, the flakes of rust around the wheelwells, and the dents in the grille which made it look like the car had hit a deer at some point. She shouldn't be fixing this car. She should be replacing it.
And what makes you think she can, Evey? You've seen this sort of thing before. I bet the woman is hanging on by her fingernails right now.
Unaware of her inner monologue, Mary nodded and got into the car, leaving the driver-side door cracked open.
God damn it. These gloves cost eighty bucks. She grabbed the filthy, grime-encrusted leads and began to wiggle them back and forth. Flakes of corrosion broke away under her touch.
Suddenly, from the corner of her eye, she could see a flare of light. At the same time, the fanbelt began to turn, and she leaped away as the engine roared to life. Stumbling over her feet, she landed on her backside in a water-filled pothole. But the sound of the rumbling engine was worth the cold, clammy feeling as water seeped through her jeans.
Smiling triumphantly, she got to her feet and slammed the hood closed. Wiping her dirty gloves against her thighs, she made her way around to the driver's side door. There she was met by Mary.
In the darkest, coldest part of the night, four hours before dawn, Mary Durham escaped from the only home she had ever known.