The book of ivy, p.3

The Book of Ivy, page 3

 part  #1 of  The Book of Ivy Series

 

The Book of Ivy
 


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  Before the war, Westfall had another life as a small town in southern Missouri, the Ozarks, as this part of the state was called back then. This town was the county seat, and the town square still remains, anchored at the south end by City Hall and the courthouse to the north. That’s part of the reason my grandfather picked this place to settle. He lived in Chicago when the war started, survived the first wave of nuclear and EMP bombing, and headed inland. Along the way, he met fellow survivors, and three years after the war, in 2025, he founded Westfall with an initial population only slightly less than what it is now, around eight thousand people. This part of the country was hit hard by disease and famine, but only a few bombs fell here, leaving enough remaining infrastructure that they weren’t forced to start over from scratch.

  The sun casts dappled shadows on our faces as we walk, sidestepping cracks in the sidewalk where the roots of giant oaks poke through the pavement. It would be nice to have some kind of transportation, especially today in high heels, but there are no cars anymore. The EMPs rendered them all useless, and we have no access to gasoline, anyway. And now, fifty years on, the streets are too cracked, weeds pushing their way through the uneven asphalt, for cars to be of any use to us regardless. Now, everyone walks or rides bikes or sometimes horses, although there aren’t enough of them to make it a practical mode of transportation.

  The strap of my high heel is rubbing against my foot and I wince as I walk, trying to shift my weight off the sore spot. Bishop looks at me, switching the suitcase from his left hand to his right. “Why don’t you take those off?” he asks. “They look painful.”

  “They are.” I take his advice and slip off my shoes, hanging them over my index finger. The sidewalk is rough and warm under my bare feet. I breathe out a tiny sigh of pleasure before I can stop myself.

  “Better?” he asks, the edge of his mouth lifting.

  “Much,” I say.

  When we reach the corner of Main and Elm, I turn left. The president’s house looms in the distance, its brick facade partially obscured behind a black wrought-iron fence.

  “Where are you going?” Bishop asks from behind me. I glance over my shoulder. He is halfway up the path to a tiny bungalow.

  I stop, confused. “Your parents’ house.”

  He shakes his head. “We aren’t living with them.” He hooks his thumb toward the bungalow. “This is ours.”

  “But I thought—” I cut myself off. Callie and my father told me we would be living in a wing of the president’s house. They never even considered another option. Last week a contact of Callie’s on this side of town told her they were moving in new furniture, changing curtains, and painting walls.

  Panic floods through me, thick and vicious. If my father was wrong about this part of the plan, what else doesn’t he know? Where else will he lead me astray? I have the urge to flee, back to City Hall, back home, anywhere but here. I can only do this if I am not required to improvise. I am not Bishop. I am not Callie. I am not that skilled an actor.

  Bishop’s eyebrows pull together as he stares at me where I am rooted in place. “Are you coming?”

  I nod. “Yes,” I say, my voice too quiet. “Yes,” I repeat, louder this time.

  He holds the front door open and follows me inside. The door closing is very loud in the empty silence of the house. He is standing right behind me, and I move forward so he can pass. The entryway opens up directly into a small living room, and he sets my suitcase down next to a beige sofa. Straight back is the kitchen, complete with a round table under a row of windows. To the right of the living room is another doorway, leading to the bedrooms, I assume. I cut my eyes away quickly.

  I have no idea what to do with myself. In giving me guidance, Callie concentrated mainly on the big moments, not the day-to-day interactions I will be forced to have with this boy. I drop my high heels to the floor, where they land with a clatter. “So,” I say, crossing my arms. “What now?” My voice comes out louder than I intended, and I can picture Callie wincing at my words.

  Bishop raises his eyebrows at me. “Are you hungry?” he asks. “You didn’t eat any cake.” He unbuttons the cuff of his shirt and rolls the sleeve up, exposing a tan forearm. He has the kind of muscles you only get by using them, lean and strong. He goes to work on his other sleeve, waiting for me to answer.

  I can’t imagine eating. Chewing and swallowing are beyond me. But fixing something to eat means a reprieve, at least, a few minutes where I don’t have to worry about what’s coming next.

  “Maybe,” I say finally. “What is there?”

  Bishop shrugs. “I have no idea. But I’m sure my mother had them stock the icebox.” I trail behind him into the kitchen. It’s warmer and brighter in here, and he crosses to the windows, pushing one up so that a breeze ruffles the lace curtains. The icebox is fancier than the basic wooden box we had at home. This one looks like a piece of furniture, scrollwork carved into the wood. Refrigerators are just one more thing that didn’t survive the war. Even if we had enough electricity to power them continually, we ran out of Freon long ago. So we use handmade wooden iceboxes and ice blocks are delivered every few days, harvested in winter and kept in an ice house year round.

  I pull open the icebox, just to have something to do with my hands. There is a block of cheese, meat of some kind wrapped in paper, a glass jug of milk and one of water on the top shelf. Below that are a dozen eggs, lettuce, and carrots in a bin at the bottom. A bowl of fresh berries. We never went hungry in my house, but there was never this much food, either. Always just enough and no more.

  “There’s more fruit here,” Bishop says from the counter. “And bread.” He flips the dial on the stovetop. “Electricity is out, so nothing we have to cook.” Electricity was one of the first things my grandfather and the other survivors worked to restore. But it still runs intermittently and we are prone to outages, sometimes short, sometimes lasting for days. Only government buildings, City Hall, the courthouse, are always guaranteed power. We are all encouraged to use our electric appliances sparingly—no lights unless it’s necessary, fans running only when it’s so hot we don’t have any choice.

  “Sandwiches?” I suggest.

  “Sure.”

  I pull out the meat—turkey, it turns out—and cheese and set them on the counter next to Bishop. He hands me a knife and I slice the bread while he does the same with a tomato. His fingers are long and he wields the knife easily, his movements deft.

  We work in silence, assembling two sandwiches, one of which I know will go uneaten. “Do you like to cook?” Bishop asks. He pulls two yellow glass plates down from the cabinet. “There’s not a right answer,” he says when I don’t respond. He sounds amused. “It isn’t a test.”

  But he’s wrong. This is all a test. Every second, every interaction, has the potential to blow up in my face. I remember what my father told me: to be myself as much as I can. The truth, where it can be told, is always more effective than a lie.

  “I don’t mind it,” I say. He’s probably picturing me in an apron, making him food all day long. “Why?”

  Bishop looks at me, his eyes doing that appraising thing again. “I was just making conversation, Ivy. Trying to get to know you.”

  It’s the first time he’s said my name. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure he even knew what it was.

  We eat without speaking. Well, he eats. I pick at the edges of my bread, rolling little balls of dough between my fingers. I keep my gaze mostly on my plate, but every time I look up, his eyes are on me, making the pit in my stomach expand. I wait for him to speak, demand something of me, but he seems content with the silence.

  I don’t know how long we sit there, but shadows are starting to slide down the walls when he finally gets up and puts our plates in the sink. Through the open window, I hear someone calling a child in for the night, the slam of a trash can lid, the faint strains of music from a guitar. The normality of it only reminds me how alone I am.

  “Do you want to unpack?
” Bishop asks.

  “Okay,” I say, smoothing my dress down as I stand, wishing I could glue it to my body. My legs feel cold and exposed, even in the mild evening air. I hear Callie’s voice in my head: Just get through it.

  He carries my suitcase down the short hallway to the bedroom. I follow a few paces behind, my fingers trailing against the wall, like maybe I can find something to cling onto that will save me. There is a bathroom to the left and a single bedroom to the right. The fading daylight reveals a large bed with two matching nightstands and a dresser on the opposite wall.

  “There are hangers in the closet,” he tells me. “And half the dresser is empty.”

  I nod, hovering in the doorway, fists clenched. He stands at the foot of the bed, his hands shoved in his pockets, watching me with careful eyes. I know what Callie would do. She would flirt and laugh. She would make the first move. She would seize the reins of a situation that is completely beyond her control and bend it to her will, happy to sacrifice herself for the good of the cause. But I am not like that. Despite what I’ve been taught, I know that if he tries to touch me, tries to take off my dress, I will fight him. Even though it won’t do any good, I will fight. I don’t know if that makes me weak or strong.

  But he doesn’t touch me, doesn’t come any nearer. He opens a dresser drawer and pulls out a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, bunching them in his fist. “I’ll sleep on the couch,” he says.

  I have been so tense, so prepared for a battle, that at first his words don’t register. “Wait… What… You don’t…” I’m not even sure what I’m asking.

  He gives me a wry smile, his eyebrows raised. “You do?”

  “No,” I say, and instantly regret how quickly I answered. I should be more worried about insulting him, but right now sheer relief overshadows my training.

  He nods. “That’s what I thought.”

  We stare at each other. I’ve never heard of the groom sleeping on the couch on his wedding night. Maybe it happens all the time and I don’t know it. But I doubt it, remembering the other couples with their greedy lips and flushed cheeks at the reception today. If he is disappointed, though, or angry, he doesn’t show it.

  I move out of the doorway so he can slide past me. He pauses briefly and tips his head down to me. “Good night, Ivy,” he says.

  “Good night.”

  He closes the door behind him as he leaves. I walk to the bed and sit on the edge, press my fingers between my knees to stop their trembling. If there was a chair I could wedge under the doorknob to make sure he can’t come back, I would feel better. But deep down, I don’t believe he’ll come in. I don’t think he will hurt me and I don’t know what to make of that. It might be easier if he had.

  I

  have never lingered in sleep. When I wake, it is with a bang, one second eyes closed and asleep, the next eyes open and mind aware. It is no different here, in this strange bedroom in this new and too-big bed. I blink up at the white ceiling and hold my body still, listening for any sign of him. I think I hear the rattle of a dish from the kitchen, but I can’t be sure.

  It is hard to believe that only yesterday morning I was waking up in my own bed in the house I’ve lived in my entire life and now I have a new house, a new bed. A new husband. He is not what I expected. I knew what he looked like, at least from a distance, so that was no real surprise. But after all the angry words I’ve heard about his father and his family’s barely concealed disdain for mine and everything we stand for, I thought Bishop would be crueler behind closed doors. His restraint surprised me. I did not think he would be patient. Perhaps I’m not what he expected, either.

  I will have to find a way to let Callie know we are not living at the president’s house. Although, knowing Callie, she already has the information and is formulating a new plan. I will need to get to the market soon, to check if there is a message for me. I could always go and visit her, of course, but it was decided that the less contact between my family and me, the better.

  “Ivy?” Bishop’s voice calls me from the other side of the door, a quiet knock against the wood to go with it.

  “Yes?” I scramble up to a sitting position.

  He opens the door slowly, only his head and upper body appearing in the crack. “I’m leaving. I wanted to let you know.” His eyes skate over my hair, which is loose now, tumbling halfway down my back, before settling on my face.

  “Okay,” I say. I am trying hard to sound normal, to think about how a wife would talk to her husband, but my voice sounds too high, strained, like I’m playing a part. Which I guess I am. In more ways than one.

  After he’s gone, I think I probably should have asked where he was going, shown more of an interest in his day. But right now, I am too exhausted to care. This was all so much easier when it was only an idea in my head.

  I lay in bed and watch the sun sneak through the edges of the curtain, spread its warm fingers across the floor. When my legs start to sweat under the blanket, I make myself get up, stretching my arms above my head, trying to work the tension out of my neck and shoulders where it’s settled like a leaden scarf.

  The bathroom is small, like the rest of the house, and spotlessly clean. I take a shower as fast as I can, for once not a consequence of the lack of hot water. I don’t want to be naked for any longer than I have to; I have no idea when Bishop might return.

  After I’m dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, my hair dripping down my back, I go ahead and finish unpacking. It’s strange to see my small collection of clothes hanging next to Bishop’s in the closet; the sight makes our marriage seem more real than anything else that’s happened so far.

  I wander through the house, opening drawers, letting my hands touch and my eyes roam. I need to get more comfortable here, somehow. He’s never going to talk to me, trust me, if I keep acting like I can’t wait to get away. There’s a lot of room between willingly giving myself over to him and closing myself off completely. I just have to find a way to live in that space.

  On the living room wall is a large version of the hand-drawn map of our town that hangs in City Hall. I kneel on the sofa to get a closer look at the bird’s-eye view. The map shows all our major landmarks, both manmade and natural: City Hall, the courthouse, the river, the greenhouses where we grow most of our food, the solar panels that help provide our electricity, the water treatment plant, the fields of cotton we use to make clothing. The fence.

  According to my father, the fence was originally constructed to keep predators out, both human and animal. It was never meant to keep us inside. And, even now, we are always free to leave. But hardly anyone ever does. Because no one knows what lies beyond the stretch of land we can see. What horrors might lurk over the horizon. Most people are content here, where at least there is food on the table and four walls to sleep behind. The memory of the war and the stories our grandparents told of starvation, radiation poisoning, and neighbors slaughtering neighbors in blind panic has made people reluctant to explore.

  The only people who go beyond the fence are those who are forced to, put out as punishment for crimes, both real and perceived. Occasionally, someone manages to get back in, by tunneling under the fence or ripping a hole in the metal. But there are no second chances. If you return once you’re put out, the punishment is death, no exceptions. My father said in the early days bandits breached the fence a few times looking for food or weapons, but we were always able to overpower them and drive them out again. Nothing like that has happened in my lifetime, though.

  I know I can’t sit in this house all day, staring at the walls, or I’ll go crazy. I might as well try the market even if it’s too soon for Callie to reach out to me. If nothing else, I can get some fresh air and stop chasing the thoughts inside my own head.

  I’ve never been to the market on this side of town, but I know where it is. I go the long way, so I can walk past the president’s house. It’s another warm, sunny day, and although the sidewalks aren’t crowded, there are other people out walking and
riding bikes. Some of them give me furtive second glances that unnerve me until I remember who I am now. I duck my head and walk faster, letting my hair fall around my face like a curtain.

  The president’s house is dark and still, no movement behind the sheer curtains. A lone man works on the lawn, pushing a wheelbarrow of mulch. I stop and let my hands curl around the iron bars keeping me outside the grounds. Is Bishop inside the house right now, learning from his father the way I learned from mine? When the gardener catches my eye, I release my hold on the fence and move away.

  I smell the market before I see it. The scent of apples, overripe vegetables, fresh earth float on the breeze, making my throat clench with longing for the market near my family’s house. Even more than my own home, I always felt comfortable there, where everyone knew me by name. My father, although a leader in our section of the city, was always insular, keeping Callie and me contained in our little unit of three as much as he could. He believed in home-schooling, never encouraged friendships beyond each other. But in the market I felt a part of something bigger, a community that cared about me.

  But this market is foreign to me, even though to an outsider it probably wouldn’t look much different than the one I used to frequent. The stalls are bigger and the awnings brighter, and there isn’t a single face I recognize. No one is rude to me, but I’m aware I don’t belong with every step I take. I stand on the outside edges of the crowds around the stalls, observing but not participating. A woman in a printed dress hands me a pastry as I pass by her table.

  “Oh, no,” I say, shaking my head. “I’m not buying anything.”

  She smiles. “No charge. Enjoy it.” She keeps her hand extended, and it would be rude to keep walking. I take the pastry from her.

  “Thank you,” I say, smiling back.

 
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