The Book of Ivy, page 15part #1 of The Book of Ivy Series
My father nods. “Is that really what he wants, Ivy, what he believes? Or is that only what he tells you? Remember, his father is playing this game, too.” He pauses. “But if you can’t do it, you can’t do it.”
I look up at him, hope bubbling in my blood.
“But how many more women have to end up like your mother before things change? Isn’t freedom worth it? The chance to make our own choices?” He touches my cheek, smooths my hair behind my ear. My heart breaks a little at his tenderness. It’s the most he’s ever offered me and it’s still too much for me to bear because I can no longer tell whether it’s the truth or another lie.
“Don’t make a decision yet. The clock hasn’t run out,” he says. “Take some time and really think about it. About who has your best interests at heart. We’re your family. And none of this works without you. We don’t work without you.”
I’m slowly coming to understand that what he’s asking of me is wrong and sick and ugly, yet the warmth of his words spreads throughout my body. They need me. They can’t succeed without me. I have a place in this family that no one else can take.
“Callie,” my father calls, and she enters the room so quickly she must have been lurking outside the doorway the entire time. She sits on my other side and kisses the top of my head like she used to when I was small and she tucked me in at night. I close my eyes and breathe past the swift knife of pain in my ribs. “I’m sorry for what I said earlier,” she murmurs against my hair. “And I’m sorry about Mom. I wanted to tell you a hundred times. But I didn’t want to hurt you.” She pauses. “I didn’t want you to doubt yourself.”
“You hurt me more by lying to me.” I twist away from her.
“I know that now,” she says. “I was wrong.” Her words are soft, but her gaze is hard. I have disappointed her. I find I don’t care. She’s disappointed me, too.
“We both were wrong,” my father says. “But we won’t keep things from you any more.” He looks from Callie to me and his eyes blaze. “Just think of all the changes we can make. All the choices you girls will have. We can make peoples’ lives so much better. Think about it, Ivy. Promise me that?”
“I promise.” I don’t have to think about it to know that no matter his reasons for wanting to overthrow President Lattimer, my father would be a better leader. He would never put someone out for a minor crime. He would give us back our free will. People would have a say in their own government. After everything, I still have full belief in my father’s ultimate goal. It’s his methods that are the stumbling block. If I kill Bishop, my family will be in power, but Bishop will be dead and what will I be? A murderer. A girl who killed a boy who had done nothing to deserve it. A boy who held my hand, and let me speak and not once tried to silence me. I will be the one with blood on my hands, and I don’t know if that’s something I can ever wash away.
t’s raining in earnest when I leave my father’s house, but I refuse the umbrella Callie holds out to me, along with her offer to walk me home. I want to be alone, and the rain is a relief against my overheated skin. I have no idea what time it is, but the sun has set and there is no one out on the rain-slick streets. My sneakers are soaked by the time I turn up the walk to our house, water running in rivulets from my hair and down my back.
I don’t see Bishop until I’m almost to the porch. He is sitting on the front steps in the dark, the roof overhang protecting him from the rain. His face is solemn. I stop mid-step and watch as he stands, a towel clutched in his hands. One second I’m standing still and the next I’m running toward him and I don’t know when my legs decided to move. I fly up the three shallow steps and wrap my arms around his neck. He is strong and warm and after only a second’s hesitation, he clutches me against him. I am sobbing; all the tears I’ve wanted to cry for what feels like years are flooding out of me, mixing with rainwater on his neck.
He holds me and lets me cry. He doesn’t try to talk me out of my sorrow, like my father did, or tell me to snap out of it, as Callie tried to, always impatient in the face of emotion. Bishop simply stands with his arms firm across my back, his breaths steady against my temple. I didn’t realize until this moment how badly I wanted him to be the one to witness my tears. His left hand comes up and grips the back of my neck lightly, his thumb rubbing against my skin.
It takes longer than I would have expected for my grief to burn itself out, leaving me breathless and limp. I pull back a step, loosening my arms from his neck. “I didn’t mean to…I shouldn’t…” My breath hiccups out of me.
“Shhh,” he says. “It’s all right, Ivy. It’s all right.” He lifts his hands from my back and presses the towel against my head, runs the dry cotton over my forehead, under my still streaming eyes. “My father told me what happened,” he says. “I’ve been worried about you.” He gives me a rueful smile. “I thought I might have to sit out here all night.”
“Did you…” I take a gulp of air. “Did you already know?”
“No. Or at least not all of it. I’d heard bits and pieces over the years, but I never knew it was your mother they were talking about.” He gathers my hair to the side and dries the dripping ends with the towel. “Your father never told you anything about her?”
“Not really,” I say. “He acted like it was too painful to talk about.”
“Maybe it was,” Bishop says.
But I’m not ready to hear words in my father’s defense. “All he told me were lies.” It is a betrayal of my father to say this to Bishop, but right now I don’t care. “He told me your father killed my mother.”
Bishop doesn’t stop drying my hair, doesn’t pull back in anger the way I thought he might. “And you believed him?” he asks, voice mild.
“He’s my father!” I exclaim, almost choking on another sob. “Don’t you trust your father?”
“Honestly?” Bishop shakes his head. “Not completely. I don’t trust most people.” He lets the towel drop. “Except for you.”
A sharp burst of hysterical laughter threatens to escape me. Callie would be doing a victory dance if she could hear him, but all I feel is dismay. “Why me?” I ask.
“Because everyone needs someone to put their faith in,” Bishop says. “Life’s too lonely otherwise. And I’m putting mine in you.” He lifts my wet hair off my neck, gathers it in his hands, and lets it fall down my back. The rain pounds on the pavement behind me, rushing off the eaves of the porch like a miniature waterfall. He skims his thumb across my cheekbone. “If I’d known about your mother,” he says quietly, “I would have told you.”
I believe him. He would have told me. He would have trusted me with the truth. He, of everyone, would have trusted me to be able to take it. “Bishop,” I murmur. We are standing so close together that our chests touch, his shirt wet from mine. I slide one hand up to his chest, pressing the damp cotton against his skin. He sucks in a breath and his heartbeat stutters drunkenly under my palm. His skin is warm, even through the cold cloth.
I’m not a toucher by nature, so the contours of his body under my hand are foreign to me. I might have been more comfortable with touching if my mother had lived or my father were a different type of man. As it was, Callie was the only one who ever offered a kind caress, and that was usually when she wanted something from me. I’m guessing Bishop isn’t a born toucher, either, considering the woman who raised him. But I think if we were given a chance, we might be able to learn it together, guiding each other over unfamiliar topography. But we aren’t going to have that chance, not one based on honesty and trust. Our story was written long ago, and it does not have a happy ending. Bishop has put his faith in the wrong person.
I let my hand drop.
Maybe my father was right in suspecting I’m too delicate for this world. Because right now, I have never felt more fragile. I feel like a mouse being played with by a cat, batted around until I have lost all sense of direction. I still believe in my father’s cause, but now, standing next to Bishop, I am no longer convinced of
Bishop leans forward, and his breath stirs the tiny hairs on my neck. He smells of rainwater and soap and long-ago sunshine. “Ivy,” he whispers. His mouth rests below my ear as he breathes my name, his lips brushing feather-light against the sensitive skin. The raw, hollow space inside me opens briefly, singing with need. I have never wanted anything in my life the way I want him at this moment—my father’s approval, my sister’s admiration, they are pale desires in comparison.
I wrench away before he can touch me again. “I’m sorry,” I choke out. “I can’t…”
I barrel past him as he reaches for my arm. I stumble inside and down the hallway until I’m safe in the cool white porcelain bathroom, back pressed against the locked door. He knocks and I count my breaths—in out, in out—until I hear his footsteps walking away. Until the only sound left is a sharp buzzing silence in my head.
ow come my lunch never looks as good as whatever you order?” I ask Victoria. I poke at a piece of chicken that more closely resembles a shriveled worm. “I’m not even sure this is food.”
Victoria laughs, but her gaze skims over my face with too much interest. “Rough night?” she asks.
I touch a self-conscious hand to my eyes, which I know are still puffy and swollen from tears and too little sleep. “Allergies,” I say.
“Uh-huh.” Her tone lets me know she doesn’t believe me, but she doesn’t press, for which I’m thankful. It was difficult enough facing Bishop this morning across the breakfast table, his eyes worried and his jaw tight. I wanted to close the distance between us and put my arms around him again, feel his wrapped around me, but instead, I picked at my oatmeal in near silence and escaped to work as soon as I could.
“Well, it’s your lucky day because we have a relatively light afternoon,” Victoria says. “You can go home early if you aren’t feeling up to being here.”
“No,” I say too quickly. “I’m fine.”
Victoria gives me a sad smile. “Marriage can be hard work.”
I open my mouth to protest, but deception takes more energy that I have today. “Yeah,” I say. “I think Bishop would have been better off with a different girl.” I didn’t know I was going to say that until it was out of my mouth.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Victoria grins at me. “I think he’s pretty happy with who he got.”
“Why would you say that?” I ask, even as my stupid, self-destructive heart tap-dances in my chest.
“I’ve run into him a few times since you got married. Bishop’s not an easy guy to read, but there’s something in his face when he talks about you.” Victoria shrugs. “I don’t know, just an impression.”
My cheeks are burning and I lower my head to study my salad. I want Victoria to be right at the same time I know I should be hoping she’s wrong. I don’t want to talk about Bishop and me anymore. It’s a minefield with a million potential ways to ruin me.
“Are you married?” I ask Victoria. She doesn’t wear a ring and she never mentions a husband, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Rings are hard to find; a lot of people don’t have them. We don’t have the resources to make jewelry, so the only rings available are those scavenged or passed down from before the war. And maybe her husband died, or she doesn’t like him, or she wants to keep her relationship separate from work. There is a multitude of valid reasons why she might choose not to talk about him.
“I used to be,” she says. “It didn’t work out.”
“What happened?” It is probably rude to ask, but Victoria won’t answer if she doesn’t want to. I’m imagining a marriage like Meredith’s, although I can’t picture Victoria taking a fist to the face without throwing one right back.
Victoria swallows a long drink of water, crunches an ice cube between her teeth before answering. “He was from your side of town. Kevin.” She says the name like it hurts her to speak it. “We were married for ten years. But I could never get pregnant.” She turns her head away to look out the smeared cafeteria window. “In the end, I let him go.”
My brow furrows. “What do you mean?”
“He wanted children. And I couldn’t give him that. I told him a hundred times I’d sign the petition to end the marriage. I knew President Lattimer would sign off on it if my father asked him to. But Kevin wouldn’t do it. But the hundred and first time, he finally agreed.” Her eyes are shiny with unshed tears.
“Did you love him?” I ask, although the answer is already clear on her face.
“Not right from the beginning. But they did their job well pairing us up. We were such good friends, almost from the start. And the love grew from there.”
This is the side of the arranged marriages that Bishop was talking about when he said that sometimes they work. Victoria and Kevin. Stephanie and Jacob. They are the matches that end in love and have the potential to make it long term. It’s probably about the same percentage of marriages that work when people decide for themselves. No better, no worse. But at least with the old-fashioned way, the decision was in the hands of the ones actually getting married. And they weren’t still essentially children when they were joined for life.
“Did he get remarried?” I ask.
Victoria nods, eyes on her plate. “He married a girl from your side of town. One who didn’t get a match when it was her year.” She pauses. “They had twins a few years ago.”
Twins are rare. A single live birth with all the requisite fingers and toes is cause enough for celebration, but twins? That’s a whole other level of achievement entirely. And I know who she’s talking about now. I never knew his name, but I saw him sometimes in the market with his wife, proudly pushing the double stroller. He was tall and gangly, with a shock of red hair and a goofy grin. Not who I would have pictured Victoria with in a thousand years.
“Do you ever see him anymore?”
“No.” Victoria puts her trash onto her tray with brisk movements. “We did at first, but it was too difficult.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s not fair.”
Victoria laughs at that, a small, wounded sound. “No, it’s not. But not much is these days.” She pauses in her cleanup efforts and finds my eyes. “We’re all doing the best we can. Bishop and his father included.”
“Do you really believe that?” I ask. I lower my voice. “About President Lattimer?”
“There aren’t any easy answers here, Ivy. Maybe your grandfather’s vision would have been better. Maybe it would have been worse. There’s no way to know that. And President Lattimer and his father have kept more of us alive than we ever dreamed possible. We’re safe, we have enough to eat most of the time, our numbers are slowly growing, no one’s standing over us with guns forcing us to do their bidding.”
“What about the marriages?” I ask, my voice tight. “That felt pretty forced to me.”
“Maybe it did to you,” Victoria concedes. “But most of the people on that stage were happy to be there, saying vows and maintaining peace. For them it’s a tradition, not a duty.”
“I don’t think everyone feels that way,” I say quietly. “They’re just scared. No one wants to rock the boat. But the way things are now, someone else is still making their choices for them. That’s not freedom.”
“Maybe freedom’s overrated,” Victoria says as she stands. “We had freedom before the war. And look where it got us.”
here is no one I’m less prepared to deal with when I walk in my front door at the end of the day than Erin Lattimer. She is perched on the edge of the couch, as if sinking back into the cushions and getting comfortable would be beneath her.
I want to ask her how she even got in, but I push a smile onto my face. “Hello. What are you doing here?” I ask, one hand still on the doo
She stands and smooths her dove gray skirt with both hands. As always, she’s styled to within an inch of her life. “We have a key,” she says.
I shut the door, drop my bag on the floor. I hate the thought of her being in this house without my permission. “Okay,” I say. “Next time maybe you could wait outside? Or let us know you’ll be dropping by?” I think I sound very reasonable, but Mrs. Lattimer purses her lips like I’ve insulted her.
“Fine,” she says.
“Is there something you needed?”
Mrs. Lattimer steps around the coffee table, closer to me. “President Lattimer’s birthday is coming up.”
I stare at her blankly.
“And we always have a big party.” She cocks her head at me. “I guess you haven’t come in the past, but I thought you’d know about it.”
I shrug. “I’ve heard about it before, but we’ve never been invited.”
“Well, you’ll need a dress,” Mrs. Lattimer says, voice brisk.
“I have a dress,” I tell her. “I wore it the day I married Bishop.” I have no desire to wear it again, but I don’t want her charity, either.
“Not that kind of dress, Ivy. Something fancier.” She gives me the once over. “Something that fits.”
“I like that dress,” I say, stubborn in the face of her pushiness.
“No, you don’t,” she says. “I saw you fussing with it the entire time you had it on. It was too short.” She walks to the front door and opens it, gesturing for me to step outside. “You represent the Lattimers now, and you are going to look the part.” She doesn’t need to say whether you like it or not for me to hear it. “Most girls would be thrilled to have the opportunity for a new dress.”
“I’m not most girls,” I mutter as she ushers me out the front door.
“Yes,” she says from behind me, voice crisp. “I’m aware of that.”
“Where are we going?” I ask her as we reach the sidewalk and she turns left toward the center of town.