The book of ivy, p.12

The Book of Ivy, page 12

 part  #1 of  The Book of Ivy Series

 

The Book of Ivy


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  The fence stretches in either direction, a large gate set into it about ten yards to my left. Is this where the prisoners are put out? There is a patch of grass and weeds about twelve feet wide between the tree line and the fence. Directly in front of me, Bishop is crouched next to the fence, talking to a figure laying on the ground on the other side. I press myself against the trunk and crane my neck to try and get a closer look. It’s a girl on the ground, her long hair tangled around her face like a dirty cloud. The only skin visible is one mud-encrusted foot. It looks more bone than flesh.

  “Come on,” Bishop says. “Take the water. Please.” He shoves a slim container of water through a gap in the fence, but it falls to the ground on the other side. The girl makes no move to reach for it. She looks dead, but I know she must not be if Bishop is talking to her.

  “Hey, I already told you, stop wasting your time with her,” a man’s voice calls, and my head whips to the side, scanning the fence line. It takes me a minute to locate the source of the voice. There’s a man sitting outside the fence, most of him camouflaged by long grass. I catch a flicker of shrewd blue eyes. Mark Laird. My blood freezes in my veins. There’s no sign of the two men put out with him. Maybe they’ve moved on, looking for shelter, food, water. Maybe he killed them. Either possibility seems likely.

  Bishop ignores him, doesn’t even turn his head. He pushes some bread through the fence. It meets the same fate as the water, landing untouched on the ground.

  “Don’t give her that!” Mark protests as he pulls himself to standing using the chain-link fence for leverage. He’s favoring his right leg. He was walking fine yesterday. “She’s practically dead anyway! You’re feeding a corpse.”

  “Shut up,” Bishop says, still not looking at Mark. I’ve never heard him sound so cold. He bends his head down, says something else to the girl that I can’t hear, but she doesn’t respond. After a minute, he stands with a sigh. I shrink back into the shadows of the tree.

  Bishop walks over to Mark and shoves another container of water and more bread through the fence. Unlike the girl, Mark doesn’t waste any time before grabbing them, groping on the ground like the food and water might disappear if he’s not quick enough. Bishop watches, his face a blank mask I do not recognize.

  “You need to find water,” Bishop says. “The river is that way.” He points to the east with his head. “Food may be more difficult, but I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”

  “Is it safe to drink the water?”

  “Do you have a choice?”

  Mark shrugs at that, biting off a huge hunk of bread. He speaks with his mouth full. “Will you be back?”

  “Don’t count on it,” Bishop says. He reaches a hand out lightning fast and pins Mark’s fingers against the fence where they’re hooked through the metal. “Leave her alone,” he says, voice quiet. I have to strain to make out his words. “Don’t take her food. Don’t touch her.” He twists his hand and Mark cries out, the bread falling from his free hand.

  “Okay,” he whines. “Okay! Let go!”

  Bishop removes his hand and backs away from the fence, not taking his eyes off Mark. He finally turns and looks at the girl one last time before heading in my direction. I shift my body to the side of the tree, hoping he’ll pass right by without noticing I’m there. I press my spine into the tree and close my eyes, willing him not to see me.

  I hear his footsteps approaching and a hand closes around my arm like a manacle, dragging me forward, away from the fence and into the woods. I gasp and stumble after Bishop, who doesn’t say a word, just keeps hauling me along.

  “You’re hurting me,” I say to his back, keeping my voice low. It seems important that Mark not know I’m here. I never want him to look at me or even think about me again.

  Bishop lets go instantly, but when he turns to face me, his usually placid eyes blaze, his jaw muscle bunched like a fist. “What are you doing here?” he demands. I’ve never seen him truly angry before. It’s almost a relief to know he’s capable of it, that he isn’t always in perfect control of his own emotions.

  I massage my arm. “I followed you.”

  “Yeah, I got that part,” he says. “I figured it out about a block from the house.”

  So much for my stealth. “Why didn’t you say something?”

  Bishop takes a step closer to me. “I wanted to see how far you’d come.”

  “Well,” I say, tipping my head up to meet his eyes. I ignore my heartbeat in my throat. “I came all the way.”

  Bishop blows out a breath and, with it, the anger appears to leave him, dissipating on his exhale. “It’s dangerous out here, Ivy.”

  Now it’s my turn to set my jaw. “You’re out here. Besides, it’s not like they can get back over.” From where we stand, I can still see a glimpse of razor wire along the top of the fence.

  “That’s not what I meant.” He runs a hand through his hair. “It’s against the law to help them.”

  “Then why are you doing it?” I demand. “That guy out there”—I hook my thumb toward the fence—“he was the one I met the other day. The one who raped a little girl.” Bishop winces at my words but doesn’t shift his gaze. “You said you didn’t have any sympathy for him. So what are you doing?” My voice drops. “Do you know the girl?”

  Bishop shakes his head. “No, I don’t know her. She was put out last time. She’s given up.” He holds out his hands like he’s searching the air for the right words, then lets them fall back to his sides. “This isn’t sympathy. It’s basic humanity. I just…” He scrubs at his face with one hand. “I want to give them a chance, I guess. The ones who deserve it, at least.”

  “How can you tell the difference?”

  Bishop gives me a rueful little smile. “I can’t.”

  I stare at him. His father imposes the sentence, without even the guts to watch it carried out. And my father’s no better, not really, although it pains me to admit it. He rails against the president’s policies, but never once has he bothered to come out here and hand out water or comfort. Of all the people I know, on both sides of the equation, only Bishop has the heart and the will to do that. Only he is strong enough to show a little mercy.

  I know Callie is right. Liking him, feeling anything for him, is the most dangerous act of all. Worse than being found out or making a mistake. But even as I know I cannot like this boy, I know it is too late.

  I already do.

  “I’ll help you,” I find myself saying. “From now on.” I take a step closer, bridging the space between us. I hesitate, torn between what I want and what is wise. I reach out and take his hand. Something sharp and electric sizzles up my arm when our skin meets, a bittersweet ache. “We can do it together.” Even Callie can’t argue if she discovers what I’m doing, not when putting people out is one of the things my father stands against. She doesn’t need to know family loyalty is not why I’m doing it.

  I expect him to argue, but he only nods, his green eyes on mine. They look darker out here, surrounded by woods, as if their color was stolen from the very trees above us. He doesn’t let go of my hand as we begin the long walk home.

  “D

  ylan and Meredith invited us to dinner.” Bishop sets a sack of food from the market on the table where I’m finishing a late morning bowl of oatmeal, enjoying a lazy Saturday.

  “When?” The reluctance in my voice matches his.

  “Tonight. Dylan cornered me on my way in.” Bishop sighs. “I didn’t feel like I could say no.”

  “Because he’d take it out on her.” I put down my spoon, no longer hungry.

  “Yeah,” Bishop says with another sigh. He slides into the chair opposite me. “They invited the couple two doors down, too. I know the husband, Jason, from school. We’re the same age. He’s a nice guy. Haven’t met his wife, though.”

  “Well, this ought to be fun,” I say with fake brightness.

  Bishop gives me an exaggerated wink. “Don’t say I never show you a good time.”

/>   I snort out a laugh, my eyes finding his across the table. He leans forward and snags one of the strawberries from my oatmeal. I thump the back of his hand with my spoon and he grins around the mouthful of fruit. He looks relaxed, slouching back in his chair, his dark hair ruffled from his fingers, a trace of stubble on his cheeks. I’m staring, but I can’t figure out a way to stop.

  “Are you happy, Ivy?” he asks, surprising me.

  In my whole life, I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that question. I take the time to really consider my answer, give it the weight it deserves. I know what I’m supposed to say. I know what I’m not supposed to feel. And the truth lies somewhere in between. “I’m a work in progress,” I tell him finally. “But I’m getting there.”

  Bishop smiles, slow and easy, and warmth spills into my blood, heating me from the inside out.

  I smile back and duck my head to hide my flushed cheeks.

  M

  eredith is setting the picnic table in the backyard when we come through the gate. She smiles at us, hurrying over to take the bowl of fruit salad from my hands. “We’re so glad you could come,” she says.

  “Thanks for inviting us,” I say.

  She points us toward the table and a collection of lawn chairs. “Make yourselves comfortable. I’ll get you something to drink.”

  Bishop sits down in one of the lawn chairs, and I perch on the picnic table bench. Meredith returns with two glasses of lemonade and Dylan, who is carrying a platter of meat.

  “Hello, there,” he says, all smiles. “How does steak sound?”

  “Great,” I force myself to say. My voice is as falsely cheerful as his, and Bishop raises his eyebrows at me, amused.

  “Figured only the best for the president’s son,” Dylan says, slapping Bishop on the shoulder with his free hand. Bishop smiles, but it’s not a real one. His eyes are like flint.

  We manage to make stilted small talk for a few minutes until Jacob and his wife, Stephanie, arrive. They are both small and dark-haired and could easily pass for siblings. Jacob is as friendly as Bishop predicted, giving me a wide smile as we’re introduced. Stephanie is pregnant, her belly so swollen she looks in danger of toppling forward at any moment. She sinks into a lawn chair with an audible sigh of relief. She flashes me an apologetic smile. “No one told me how exhausting this was going to be.”

  “I can imagine,” I murmur, although I really can’t.

  She rubs her hand over her belly. “Only a few more weeks, thank goodness. We’re getting anxious to meet this little guy. Or girl.”

  Jacob takes the seat next to hers and rests a hand on her shoulder. “Do you need anything?” he asks.

  She smiles up at him, her whole face glowing. “No, I’m fine.” She seems happy, but I wonder how much of her joy is real and how much is tied up in the idea that she’s successfully fulfilled her role as a wife and soon-to-be mother.

  Meredith joins us, standing with her hands clasped in front of her, a wistful expression on her face. “I can’t wait to have a baby,” she says.

  I look down at the ground and tell myself to keep quiet. And for once I’m able to heed my own advice. I can’t believe she would want to have a child with Dylan. Has she been so brainwashed that she actually thinks it will improve her situation, that a boy like Dylan will ever change? And does she not understand how a child will trap her? No matter what happens to her relationship with Dylan, she will love their child, and that maternal bond will lock her in for the rest of her life. Babies at sixteen serve more than one purpose for a clever government.

  It strikes me suddenly how ridiculous all of this is. The group of us still children in many ways, playing at being grown-ups. Throwing barbecues and talking about babies. Even at eighteen, Jacob and Stephanie seem young, too young to be embarking on parenthood, surely. My father told me that before the war, a lot of people didn’t marry or have children until they were in their thirties. Sometimes even their forties. It had been shocking to contemplate. Now, the younger you are when you reproduce, the better the chance your baby will be born with the right number of fingers and toes, the better the chance you’ll be able to have a child at all.

  But I envy the women who came before me, the ones who had the option of waiting or of not having children at all. Nowadays, children are the most valuable currency there is, and if you’re able, you have them. It’s not a question of what you want, it’s only a question of how many and how healthy. I know that Bishop and I aren’t destined to raise a family together, but I wonder if he is envious of Stephanie’s growing belly, if he wishes he had his own child on the way. I catch his eye across the yard, and he gives me a small, secret smile. Something in his face tells me I’m not the only one who recognizes the ridiculousness of this life we’re living.

  “Steaks are ready!” Dylan calls, and Meredith rushes over to his side with a platter. Her constant vigilance to his needs has to be exhausting, always trying to anticipate what he’ll want before he even wants it.

  We line up for plates, Jacob urging Stephanie to stay seated while he gets her food. I sit at the edge of the picnic table with Dylan and Meredith across from me. Bishop sits in the same lawn chair he vacated earlier, Stephanie and Jacob to his left.

  I’m halfway through my dinner when I notice the cozy way Stephanie and Jacob are sitting, their knees touching, laughing under their breath at some private joke. Even Dylan and Meredith are having a conflict-free evening. She is holding out a forkful of watermelon for him, smiling as he slides it into his mouth. I have to resist the urge to vomit. I’d be more tempted to stab him in the eye. But there’s no denying that the closeness of the other couples makes the distance between Bishop and me more awkward, noticeable to everyone. I can’t afford to have people speculating about our relationship, questioning my commitment to my husband. Especially after…when suspicion is sure to swirl around me.

  I take a deep breath and push myself up, plate in hand. I walk to where Bishop is sitting. When he looks up at me, I smile. “Is there room for me?” I ask. I don’t give him a chance to answer. I lower myself to sit sideways across his lap, resting my weight gingerly on his thighs. I hope he can’t feel my body quaking.

  He studies me for a long moment. “I won’t break,” he says finally. He puts a hand on my lower back, supporting me.

  “I’m tall,” I say by way of apology as I let him take my full weight.

  “I’ve noticed.” Bishop’s voice is quiet. “I like it.”

  The heat in my chest threatens to engulf me, like a fire’s been set inside my rib cage and is raging out of control, tearing its way through my body, burning up all the available oxygen. Out of the corner of my eye, I can tell Stephanie and Jacob are watching us, but I can’t shift my gaze from Bishop’s.

  “How’s…” I have to clear my throat. “How’s your steak?”

  “Good.” Bishop glances down at my plate. “Yours?”

  “Same,” I say. I don’t trust myself to lift my fork.

  A wisp of Bishop’s hair falls over his forehead, blown by the breeze. I don’t give myself time to think about it, just reach up and smooth it back, the strands so much softer than I thought they would be, thick and silky against my fingers. My head knows what a horrible idea this is, screaming at me to stop, that I’m taking things too far, but the rest of me has no such reservations. I have the fleeting thought that perhaps self-preservation isn’t my strongest character trait.

  Bishop turns his head slightly as I ease my hand away so that I touch his cheek, his skin warm and stubble-rough under my palm. His hand remains on the small of my back. His thumb rubs in a slow up-and-down motion, my entire body centered right there at the point of contact.

  “I thought you were making strawberry shortcake,” Dylan says behind me. “That’s what I said I wanted.”

  Bishop’s thumb stills on my back, and I turn my head, following his gaze to where Dylan and Meredith stand near their back door. She’s carrying a pie in her hands, her happy smile dyi
ng on her face as I watch.

  “The strawberries at the market didn’t look good today. But they had fresh blueberries, and I thought—”

  Dylan’s hand moves so fast I don’t even see it until it cracks across her cheek. The contact creates a sharp popping sound, and Meredith’s eyes widen, tears blossoming along her lids. Stephanie gives a quick, startled inhale before quiet descends again.

  Meredith raises a hand to her cheek, her eyes on the pie. “I’m sorry,” she whispers.

  Bishop’s whole body has gone rigid, his hand forming a fist in my shirt.

  “Blueberry will be fine,” Dylan says, like he’s granting her an official pardon. “But next time, do what I say.”

  “All right,” Meredith says with a wobbly smile. She sets the pie on the table, and Dylan turns to all of us, clapping his hands. “Who’s ready for dessert?” he calls. He doesn’t appear to notice the awful tension in the yard, or maybe he doesn’t care—the casual violence he inflicted simply part of the everyday fabric of their lives.

  “I’m not feeling well,” I say, my voice loud in the silence that meets Dylan’s dessert announcement. “I want to go home.” I stand and put my plate down on the picnic table.

  “Don’t you want some pie?” Meredith asks, her brow furrowed.

  “No.” I can barely meet her eyes. I know I should stay, for her sake, that Dylan will blame the party breaking up on her, but I can’t. If I stay, I will say something that will only make things a thousand times worse for her. Better to go now, before I do even more damage.

  Bishop is behind me, making our apologies and saying good-bye, but I walk away, out the gate and through to our yard. Once inside, I lean against the kitchen counter, my hands shaking with rage.

  “We have to do something,” I say as soon as Bishop is inside, the back door shut behind him.

  “I know,” he says. “But you need to stay away from him.”

  I blow out an exasperated breath. “I can handle him.”

  “I have no doubt you could kick his ass from here to next Tuesday,” Bishop says, voice calm. “In a fair fight. But guys like him never fight fair.” He pulls out a kitchen chair and straddles it, his hands resting on the back. “He’s unpredictable, and that makes him dangerous.”

 
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