In less than half an hour, I found myself standing in front of the general store with dread forming in the pit of my stomach. I stepped inside, feeling as though I were outside of my body, watching the scenario from just above.
“Mr. Allen,” called a deep voice from the front counter.
“Good day, Mr. Macfarlane.”
Mr. Caleb Macfarlane was only an inch or so taller than I, but he had clearly kept up his love of boxing. His sneering expression had not changed one bit, either.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
“I would like to buy some tea,” I stammered, feeling more than a little foolish.
“Really? Sarah mentioned that you already stopped by and made a fuss about there not being enough selection.”
There was no point in explaining myself.
“Did she also mention to you that she agreed to exchange writing samples with me?” I lied.
He glared at me. “I doubt that, but I assume you are here to speak with her.”
“I did have a question to ask her that pertains to writing.”
“What a novel idea,” he said flatly.
His stone face was much worse than his insulting one. My eyes went to the open door and I longed to run back out to the safety of the street.
“Forgive me. I should go.”
“No, no. Wait here,” he said sharply.
Within seconds, he disappeared through the store’s back door. My heartbeat raced as I thought about the trouble I had caused for Sarah. The last enemy that I needed was a hostile man like Caleb. I hovered in the empty shop for half an hour without a sign of either Caleb or Sarah. Ideas came to me about what could be happening and I tried to blot them out.
After another five minutes, I stepped out of the store feeling far lower than when I had stepped in.
“I’m a damned fool.”
When I set foot back into my aunt’s home, she walked straight to me.
“I thought you were spending the day outside with Matthew,” she said without hiding her concern.
“We went for a swim, but then he had to leave.”
“What do you know about Sarah? You have known her for years, correct?”
“Why can’t you just sit respectably at your writing table instead of gallivanting around town?” she cried.
My jaw dropped. She had never once risen her voice at me. We stared at one another, speechless, for too long.
“I am sorry,” she sighed, shaking her head wearily. “I just wish you would stop asking me so many questions that I do not want to answer.”
“Matthew knew about Jeremy. How many other people know that he is still alive?”
She gaped at me for a second before stepping over to the window. Her gaze softened as she stared out at the blazing sun.
“I wish your uncle were here now. You need him, not me.”
“I wish he were here, too,” I said gently. “But I am happy you are here.”
A soft smile lifted the corner of her lips. Just as quickly, she cowered away from the window.
“Oh, God,” she groaned.
I joined her at the window. At the sight of Caleb storming toward the house, with Sarah trailing behind, I shuddered.
“I promise you that I will make this right,” I said quickly.
“How could you possibly do that?”
“Perhaps it is time that someone put that idiot in his place.”
Her only response was a frown.
Three loud knocks rattled the dishes and china in my aunt’s cupboard. I opened the door and met the unblinking, psychotic glare that I had expected. My gaze then fell on Sarah, whose eyes were red and watery. Her hair was unbound and messy as though she had been awakened from a nap and then dragged out of the house.
“Is everything all right?” I asked calmly.
“Sarah is here to help you with your research,” said Caleb.
Silence weighed the air for a good minute before Caleb’s hollow laughter disturbed my ear drums. Sarah stepped forward. Her eyes stared just past me.
“You were wondering about Jeremy,” she said. “I have something I need to say.”
“Tell me only if you want to,” I said.
“Tell him,” said Caleb.
My fists clenched at his arrogant, dismissive nod at Sarah as she stared down at her shoes.
“Take your time,” I said.
“I wrote you the note,” Sarah blurted.
I exchanged glances with my aunt.
“Why, dear?” asked my aunt.
Sarah’s sad eyes reached me. “I wanted you to know that he is alive. I hoped that you might be able to help him.”
“I see,” I said. “Well, thank you for telling me.”
She ran her hand through her tousled hair while her pupils darted all over the place.
“Tell him why Jeremy had to go to an asylum,” Caleb growled.
Sarah covered her mouth, shaking her head repeatedly.
“Your words will not leave this property,” I assured her.
“I was a fool for encouraging him so much,” Sarah stuttered. “I helped him submit one of his writing pieces to a magazine, but then they rejected him harshly. I… it was my fault.”
“My sweet, quiet wife is really an insane little wench,” said Caleb, smirking. “She was holding secret group meetings on Friday nights when she knew that I was predisposed. Heaven only knows what happened at those.”
“Enough of that!” I shouted.
Caleb’s lack of reaction only sent me into a rage. “Get off of my aunt’s property, Caleb! It would do you some good to treat your wife with respect.”
“Respect is earned, you son of a bitch,” he sneered.
He reached over and yanked Sarah by the wrist, dragging her rapidly down the path with him.
“Wait,” I called.
“No, Alfred.” My aunt’s warm hand rested on my chest. “Let them go.”
“Can you believe that man?”
“I am sorry that you are only now discovering that life is not as fair as how you were brought up to believe.”
Her tired eyes glistened. A part of me wanted to embrace her, but the stronger part of me wanted anything other than to be touched. I felt helpless to save Sarah from the bastard and I knew that no one in the town would care about a husband reprimanding his ‘disobedient’ wife. I would help her as much as I could if only I would be able to speak with her alone.
“I already have realized that. I must go for a walk.”
“Alfred, please! Don’t go running off again.”
My chest ached for her pained voice as she called for me, but I had to be alone to think. I was going to find Jeremy no matter how long it took me to do so. I had heard about backwoods mad houses that the poorer people were sent to. They were institutions, if one could them that.
As I walked further away from my aunt, my nerves calmed and my senses took in the natural beauty surrounding me.
“Jeremy,” I whispered. “I will find you.”
I often waited for the setting sun just so I could experience the soothing darkness that followed. My toes rested on the edge of a cliff overlooking a steep ravine. Stars appeared in the darkening sky as I reveled in the beauty before me.
I had an idea that Matthew knew where Jeremy was placed. Then, there was the matter of Sarah. She seemed to be a prisoner of more than just a depressing marriage. Goose flesh covered my body a split second before a something snapped just behind me.
In the absence of my breath was another man’s rapid breathing.
“Hello?” I called.
I turned to face him on weakening legs.
“You followed me.”
“So it seems.”
“What do you want to say to me?”
“Say? Not very much.”
Realizing my precarious position, I stepped away from the rocky edge.
“I am debating on what I should do to you first. Beat you and then throw you over the edge, or the reverse?”
“Uh. Throwing me over first would be too much work for you to try and find me again.”
I broke into a clumsy run as I finished the sentence. The strangest form of terror filled my body as I darted in between the towering trees. My legs carried me faster than they ever had, of that I was certain, but I dared not glance over my shoulder to see if he was on my tail.
At the forest’s edge, I sprinted for the meadow. Heaviness crashed into my back and my legs gave out. I tumbled down to the damp earth along with Caleb. I struggled like a hare in the grip of a wolf’s jaws. His snickering intensified my fear.
“Stop!” I begged like the prey that I was.
A blow thundered into the side of my head. Stars flecked my vision as I lay there gritting my teeth.
Caleb’s muffled words chased me into the growing oblivion.
“Stop,” I blurted.
He leaned into me, whispering something unintelligible into my ear. Something sharp, like a knife’s blade, dug into my ribs, strengthening my awareness. He had a weapon sheathed to his belt.
“Bastard,” I taunted.
He brought his mouth to my ear again.
“What did you say, fairy boy?”
My hand reached for the hilt of his dagger, clenched onto it, and jabbed the blade into his thigh. I quickly yanked it out and slashed it across his chest. I kicked him off and fought back the urge to vomit as my legs found their stability. My consciousness hid somewhere in the depths of my brain as my legs ran on.
When my aunt’s home came into view, I ran so fast that I crashed into her front door. Collapsing, I panted and choked as the pain from Caleb’s blow intensified. I knocked on the door while my panic-widened eyes kept watch for my pursuer. I would be done for if he caught me again.
Suddenly, the support on my side disappeared and I fell, hitting my shoulder with a thud.
“Alfred,” my aunt breathed.
“We… we have to lock the door before he comes for me again.”
I crawled inside and she quickly closed the door behind me. I could have fainted at the sound of her locking it.
“Did Caleb do this to you?” she cried.
Stickiness coated my hand when I touched the pulsing on my head.
“I stabbed him and got away. I don’t think it was fatal.”
“Oh my God.”
“I am so, so sorry for this.”
“It was not your fault that the madman hunted you down. He threatened your life, I’ll wager.”
I stared up at her as she clenched her jaw.
“He is never going to hurt you again. This nonsense with him needs to stop. Can you get yourself to the couch? Lay there while I clean and dress that wound.”
The room spun as I returned to my less than balanced standing position; I made my way to the comfort of my uncle’s sofa. The sound of water trickling caused heaviness to fall on my eyelids.
Howling wind woke me the next morning. I stretched my sore limbs, grateful for the absence of the sun’s intensity. My wound was more tender than the night before. I rolled over onto my other side and groaned.
“Getting yourself into trouble again, old boy?”
My eyes flew open.
“Matthew?” I said as I sat up.
He was sitting at the dining table writing something.
“Should you not be on a train right now?”
“I should be, yes,” he said with a grin, “but bad news travels fast here and I heard all about your skirmish with our friend.”
“He would have killed me.”
“Everyone knows who the perpetrator is and so you have nothing to worry about. From what I hear, he has written a heart-felt apology to you and hopes that you will not go to the justice system.”
“As if I have time to do that.”
“You are too busy interrogating emotionally sensitive parents for your new story.”
I rolled my eyes, which intensified my pounding headache. “Thank you for staying behind, but I do not want to be the cause of you missing out on your apprenticeship hours.”
Matthew shrugged. “Honestly, Dr. Scott had been bothering me to take a couple of weeks off for a while. I was working very long hours on a research project, you see.”
“As long as it does not affect your apprenticeship.”
Matthew shook his head before taking a very casual sip of tea. “I examined your head wound and your aunt tended to it just fine. Do you feel fit enough to go to town?”
“Sarah approached me at the break of dawn when I was on my way to see you. She told me that she had something to ask of you.”
My stomach churned at the thought of her. I wanted to see her as much as I did not want to see her.
“You are telling me that it is safe to talk to Caleb’s wife after he tried to kill me last night.”
“Remember, he wrote you a completely sincere letter.”
“You are acting as though this is all some sort of joke.”
“You do not have to worry about Caleb coming after you anymore. Everyone knows what he did now, and he does not want to risk imprisonment. He would miss all of his pretty things too much if he were in jail.”
“If you say so.”
Within an hour, Matthew and I strode down the street toward the general store. To my relief, it was the time of day where most people were either working or having their afternoon tea.
“I look disgusting,” I muttered, touching the bandage that my aunt had wrapped around my head.
Sarah must have seen us coming, for she all but ran out of the store toward us, grasping onto a parcel with both hands.
“Alfred, how are you feeling?” she breathed.
“I should be asking the same thing about your husband.”
She blushed, clearly distraught as she looked from me to Matthew. “He is in pain, but the doctor says that he will heal up nicely. I-I am very sorry again for this.”
I shrugged in mock nonchalance. She eyed me before giving the parcel to me. “These are my stories. If I continue writing, Caleb will send me to the asylum. He has threatened to do so many times, but now I believe him after what he tried to do to you.”
“You cannot simply give up your passion!” I cried.
The few people who were on the streets gawked at us.
Sarah sighed in exasperation. “We are all the talk of the town, unfortunately.”
“Even I?” asked Matthew.
She crossed her arms. “Yes. I heard a couple of gentlemen say that you are staying around to help Alfred here with his research.”
“How preposterous,” he laughed.
“Matthew seems to find humor in this situation,” I said.
“An amiable quality for a physician, I suppose,” said Sarah with a half smile.
“Do you not have family you could stay with?” I asked.
“No. None who would have me. It was my choice to marry him and I must accept the consequences.”
“It seems to me that living with him is a brutal punishment for a choice you made as a twenty-year-old girl,” said Matthew.
She nodded, staring at her feet. “Nevertheless, I can help you with something, Alfred.”
She stepped closer to us, peering over her shoulder at a group of men smoking cigars close by. “I will show you where they were placed after they were found… dead.”
A strange cocktail of elation and dread filled me. “When? When will you be able to escape for an evening to show me?”
“Tonight,” she said with stern finality. “Caleb has been drinking all day and will be sound asleep before nightfall. I will meet you just past your aunt’s house.”
“I have already caused you a great deal of trouble by being here.”
She blinked once. “I will see you just after dark by the well.”
The melancholia radiated from her eyes as I peered into them. It was akin to looking in a mirror. Her skirt swayed like a billowing tree top as she turned to walk back to the store.
“At nightfall then,” I whispered.
I held the package that protected her stories, bracing myself as a painful heaviness filled my chest.