The book of ivy, p.4

The Book of Ivy, page 4

 part  #1 of  The Book of Ivy Series

 

The Book of Ivy
 


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  “You’re welcome, Mrs. Lattimer,” she says, and the smile slides off my face. Are they going to try and give me gifts now? Is that what it means to be Bishop Lattimer’s wife, everyone wanting to give me things I don’t deserve because of my name? Is this what Bishop’s life is like? And how long does it take before you start thinking you do deserve it, that it should all belong to you?

  I hand the pastry to the next child I pass, a little girl who looks up at me with delighted eyes. Weaving through the crowd, I find the small stall at the end where an older man sells jars of jelly and mustard. Even those are fancier here, scalloped edges on the labels and colored twine tied around the lids.

  “Hello,” I say. I pretend to study the jar of mustard in my hand.

  “Hello,” he says in return, his eyes taking in the crowd behind me. “Anything I can help you with?” One of his arms curls uselessly against his chest, the hand withered and hooked like a claw. Such birth defects are common in Westfall, an ongoing casualty of nuclear war.

  “No.” I set down the mustard. “Just looking.” As I scoot over to make room for the family on my right, the man gives me a quick shake of his head. No message from Callie. I didn’t think there would be, but disappointment still courses through my blood, leaving me tired and defeated. But I cannot afford to be discouraged. She will contact me when the time is right. Until then, I have to figure out how to play Bishop’s wife in a way he will believe.

  H

  e is still not home by six o’clock. I made scrambled eggs a half hour ago and now they are congealing on the stove. It is ridiculous to be annoyed with him, since I was the one who didn’t ask any questions when he left this morning, simply glad for him to be gone and not staring at me with those eyes that seem to be constantly sizing me up with every glance.

  I go ahead and set the table, concentrating on lining up the forks and napkins so I don’t have to think about anything else. When the front door opens, I move to the stove and flip the burner back on.

  “Hi,” I call out, “I’m in here,” wincing at the stupid sing-song note of my voice.

  He doesn’t answer, but I hear his footsteps crossing the living room. “Hello,” he says from the doorway. I didn’t notice it yesterday, when I was strung tight with nerves, but his voice is deep and slightly sleepy, like the words he speaks come from some cavern inside him and are in no particular rush to leave his mouth.

  “I made dinner,” I say, glancing at him. He’s leaning in the doorway, arms crossed. He’s wearing a dark gray T-shirt and worn jeans and he looks more at ease in casual clothes, the same way I suspect I do. His thick dark hair is slightly messy, like he’s been running his fingers through it or been out in the wind. I return my attention to the eggs I’m trying to unglue from the bottom of the pan.

  “I hope you’re hungry,” I say. “Because I am. Starving. I barely ate anything today.” I’m rambling, trying too hard, and snap my mouth closed.

  He doesn’t respond. I risk another look at him and he’s giving me a small half smile, his gaze curious. “What are you doing?” he asks finally.

  “Cooking,” I say, the beginnings of exasperation licking around the edges of my patience. I’m trying, at least. Why can’t he just go along with it? So far he hasn’t lived up to any of my imaginings. Replacing commands with silence, violence with patience, superiority with what feels like empathy. I am hit with a sudden wave of anger at my sister. I need her here to tell me what to do in the face of a boy who is not acting in any of the ways she prepared me to expect.

  “Hmmm…” is all he says. The quiet grows around us until I can’t take it anymore. I have to fill it up with something, even if it’s misplaced anger. I slam the spatula down on the counter with a little too much force and small bits of egg fly off, spattering my arm. It is this, of all things—hot egg smearing across my skin—that brings tears to my eyes. I turn away, fumbling for the rag at the end of the counter.

  Behind me, I hear the burner click off, the frying pan sliding to the back of the stove. He puts a hand on my shoulder and I try very hard not to flinch, but he must sense it anyway because his hand drops away.

  “Come on,” he says. “Let’s go sit down.”

  I turn around but keep my face averted, concentrating on cleaning my arm. “What about dinner?”

  “I think it can wait.”

  I follow him into the living room and wait for him to sit in one of the armchairs before I take a seat on the couch across from him. I fold my legs up under me and pick at a loose thread on the cushion. It is still light out, but the sun has begun its slow descent. Because this room faces east, the shadows are beginning to creep in, masking both of us in twilight. He doesn’t turn on the lamp and I’m glad. Maybe it will be easier this way, with something to hide behind.

  “I know this is difficult,” he says. He leans forward and puts his elbows on his knees, stares at his laced hands. “It’s hard for me, too.”

  I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing.

  He lets out a frustrated sigh. “You don’t…you don’t have to be any certain way with me, Ivy. I don’t expect anything. I want you to be yourself.” He leans back and scrubs at his face with one hand. He sounds tired. “I just want to know who you are.”

  “Okay,” I say, while my brain searches for all the hidden meanings behind his words, trying to figure out what it is he really wants. Because it seems impossible that he is coming into this relationship without an agenda of his own. “What do you want to know?”

  Bishop leans forward again and stares at me. “Everything,” he says quietly, and my stomach clenches. “Anything.”

  I know I have to tell him something, but I need to be careful. And even beyond the worries about all the secrets I hold, there is the nagging feeling that I’m not even sure who I am, apart from my family. For most of my life, I was the spare daughter, the one who would stay by my father’s side and work behind the scenes while Callie took center stage. And then, unexpectedly, two years ago, I became the focus. I’ve spent my whole life becoming the girl they need me to be, and I’ve shoved any parts that don’t fit so far down inside myself I don’t think I can find them anymore. It is one more violation to have to reach down and offer myself up to this stranger.

  I force my fingers to stop worrying the cushion thread. “Umm…I don’t know.” I take a deep breath. “I like strawberries. I wish I were a few inches shorter. I’m scared of snakes. I like to read. My mother died when I was a baby.” I say the words fast, as if the sheer speed at which I spit them out will render them less personal, although they are hardly deep, dark secrets. I wonder if he knows what his father did to my family? How he took away my mother—had her killed—to remind us who has the power. Just thinking about it makes heat rush into my cheeks, my heart thundering against my ribs. I should stop, but instead, I look up at him, hold his eyes. “I don’t like the things your father does.” Callie may be the fiercer one, but there is a recklessness in me that cannot be contained. “Is that what you wanted to know?”

  The expression on Bishop’s face doesn’t change, his eyes still and calm. “It’s a start,” he says eventually.

  I know he is waiting for me to ask him questions in return, to express curiosity about him and his life. But I don’t care. I already know everything about him that’s worth knowing. I know who his father is and what his family stands for. Anything beyond that doesn’t matter to me. But I can hear my father’s voice in my head: Step one is establishing trust. Talk to him, get him to open up to you.

  “What about you?” I ask, trying hard to sound interested. “It’s your turn now.”

  “Okay,” he says. “I like pecans. I wish I had my father’s cleft chin.” His eyes gleam and I know he’s teasing me. I’m not sure whether to be annoyed or relieved. “I’m scared of confined spaces,” he continues. “I like being outdoors. My mother drives me crazy.” He pauses, looks right at me. “I like the way your eyes flash when you’re angry. Is that what you wanted to kn
ow?”

  Something flutters in my chest. “It’s a start,” I say.

  I

  wake the next morning to an empty house. Bishop is already gone, a note left on the kitchen table telling me he’ll be back by five. I’m hit with a small flare of disappointment as I read it. Not that I’ll miss him or wanted him to stay, but I don’t know what to do with myself for another day. I’ve never been good at sitting still unless there’s a book in my hand. Too long without activity and my mind races, something Callie says can only lead to trouble. She always said it with a smile, but I never once thought she was joking.

  Alone in the house, with a long day stretching in front of me, I realize how truly isolated I am. Other than my sister, I don’t really have a single friend in the world. My father home-schooled us, not trusting President Lattimer’s influence over the curriculum. He also worried that we might slip up and tell someone our intentions if we became too close to other children. Although there were people on our side of town who grumbled about President Lattimer and his policies, my father thought it safer to keep our plans private, an army of three. He never spoke outright of revolution and warned us not to, either.

  For the last two years, he’s kept me particularly segregated, while he and Callie have worked hard to build up relationships on our side of town, shoring up alliances by helping people when they ran short of food or speaking with President Lattimer on behalf of those with small grievances. They’ve also done some good deeds for those on this side of town, like the man in the market whose daughter they were able to help when she fell sick last winter and who now happily acts as a messenger. My father always says that once he takes over, people will remember those good deeds and we’ll have plenty of support behind us. But until then, true friends outside the family are discouraged, too many ways those relationships can come back to haunt us. But today I would do almost anything to have someone to talk to, a friend who could occupy my spinning mind for even a few minutes.

  After a breakfast of oatmeal and raspberries and a quick shower, I wander out onto the screened porch off the kitchen. It’s a large room with a floor covered in once white-washed planks, now faded to a tired gray. Two wicker sofas topped with yellow cushions face each other across a low wrought-iron table. My namesake grows up the sides of the screens, giving the porch a cozy, cocoon-like feeling. I can see out, but the ivy gives the illusion that no one else can see in.

  The back door of the neighboring house opens and a girl emerges, carrying a basket over one arm, gardening gloves clasped in her fist. Her hair is long and stick straight, a shiny, pale blond. The kind of hair I’ve always secretly wanted instead of my tumbled and tangled mass of waves, my own color more plain honey than spun gold. I recognize her from my side of town, although I’m sure I’ve never officially met her. It’s possible she was at the marriage ceremony, but I was too preoccupied to pay close attention. She is halfway down her back steps when the screen door opens again and a boy leans out, grabbing her forearm.

  “What about my breakfast?” he asks her.

  “I left cereal out,” she says. Her voice is high and childlike. “And I made fruit salad.”

  From where I stand, concealed by the greenery, I see his hand tighten on her arm. She winces and tries to pull away, but he jerks her back toward him. “That’s not breakfast,” he says. His voice is reasonable, not raised, which makes it more frightening. “I want eggs. Or pancakes. Something hot.”

  “All right,” the girls says. “Just let me—”

  “Now,” he says.

  I push open the screen door to the porch and bound down the steps toward them.

  “Hi,” I call out. Both their heads whip in my direction.

  The boy’s eyes narrow briefly, then clear. He drops the girl’s arm and comes down the steps toward the low fence separating our yards. “Hi there,” he says with a smile.

  I smile back at him, although it costs me something to do it, and find the girl’s eyes over his shoulder. “I’m Ivy…Lattimer,” I say. The name still sounds foreign on my tongue, like I’m introducing a girl I’ve never met. “We just moved in.”

  “Sure,” the boy says, “I know who you are. I went to school with Bishop, although he was a few years ahead of me.” He holds out his hand. “I’m Dylan Cox.” He hooks a thumb back over his shoulder. “And this is my wife, Meredith. We’re new to the neighborhood, too.”

  “Hi,” Meredith says. Her eyes ping-pong between her husband and me.

  “It’s nice to meet you,” I say. “Well, I just wanted to introduce myself.”

  Dylan smiles at me again. It’s an infectious smile, one that’s difficult to resist. Looking at it makes me think maybe I’m wrong about what I saw, wrong about what kind of boy I think he is.

  “Don’t be a stranger,” he tells me. I stand at the fence and watch until he and Meredith go back inside, the dark doorway swallowing them whole.

  B

  y afternoon, I have to get out of the house, even if I have no particular destination in mind. I’m bored and restless and I can’t stop replaying the scene with Dylan and Meredith in my head. That is exactly the type of relationship my father always talked about when he railed against the arranged marriages. He said that forcing young girls to marry boys they’d never met and who were considered a better class, even if no one said it out loud, set up an unbalanced power structure that often resulted in abuse and violence. And now I’ve seen evidence of it first hand. I want to help Meredith, but I’m not sure how. Once my father’s plan is fully in place, it might be too late for her.

  Without any conscious thought, I find myself wandering to the green space that separates the populated sections of town from the uninhabited woods. It’s more than twenty acres of grass and rolling hills, dotted with trees and a large pond. There is a path for bicycles, and a wider one for walking, but today, a Monday afternoon, only a few other people are visible in the distance.

  I ignore the path and cut straight through the long grass, heading toward the pond and the ducks I used to feed as a child. There is a low wooden bridge over the water, and I cross halfway and lower myself to sitting, my legs dangling above the water, my arms folded on the bottom of the wooden rail. I rest my chin on my hands and watch the ducks splash around below my feet, wishing I’d thought to bring some bread to throw for them.

  I don’t look up when I hear steps on the bridge, but then a pair of legs slots in to place beside mine and a voice as familiar as my own cuts the silence. “Tell me everything,” says Callie, her shoulder pushing into mine.

  I suppose I should be surprised to see her here, but I’m not. My entire life she’s always been one step ahead of me—of most people, for that matter. She always says she has eyes everywhere, and it’s wise to take Callie at her word. Besides, I’m too relieved to see her to care how she knew where to find me.

  “Callie,” I say, smiling. “I went to the market yesterday, but there wasn’t a message. I’m glad you’re here.”

  “Me, too,” she says, her eyes raking my face. “Are you okay?”

  “Yes. But we’re not living in President Lattimer’s house. Did you know that?”

  She nods. “I found out yesterday. From what I’ve heard, that was Bishop’s idea. He didn’t want to live with his parents.” She shrugs. “Makes sense, I guess. But it definitely complicates things.” She pins me with her gaze. “You’re going to have to figure out a way to get what we need. You’ll be in and out of that house, I’m sure. It may take a little longer, that’s all.”

  “Okay,” I say. The thought of snooping around President Lattimer’s house while I lived there and might be able to think of a valid excuse if caught was bad enough. Doing it this way will be even worse.

  One of the ducks below us dives for food, splashing cool water onto my foot. It tickles as it runs over my instep.

  “So,” Callie says, her voice quiet. “Was it bad? Did he hurt you?”

  I glance at her. She is staring down at the water, her ja
w clenched. “No,” I say. “We didn’t…you know.”

  She twists her head in my direction. “Why not?”

  “I don’t know, really. I think he could tell I was scared, that I didn’t want to.” I kick my feet back and forth. “Maybe he didn’t want to, either.”

  Callie snorts. “The guy has self-control, I’ll give him that. I didn’t think he’d be able to resist…all that,” she says, flapping a hand in my direction.

  “Stop it,” I say, but I can’t help the little laugh that escapes me. It is good to laugh, even over something that’s not really funny.

  “And he’s clever,” Callie says. “Not forcing anything makes him seem like a nicer guy than he actually is. How’s the rest of it going? Are you getting him to trust you?”

  “It’s been two days.”

  “I know that, Ivy. But we don’t have the luxury of endless time. Three months, that’s what you’ve got. The clock is already ticking.”

  Three months. I don’t know if it’s too long or not long enough. But it’s the amount of time I have to complete the steps in my father’s plan, the last one being to kill Bishop. President Lattimer’s death will follow, and Callie’s told me that plan is already in motion, cannot be slowed down or stopped. But Bishop has to die first. I don’t know all the details. My father thinks it’s safer if I only have pieces, in case I’m caught. But what I do know is that if I screw up, our plans will be ruined.

  “So, are you doing what we told you, getting him to trust you?” Callie repeats.

  “I guess so,” I say finally. “I mean, we’re talking.” I think about the conversation we had last night. “I said something negative about his father, though. I probably shouldn’t have done that.”

  “Oh my God, Ivy,” Callie says, voice raised. “You are supposed to play nice. How many times did we go over this?”

  “I don’t think he was mad. He didn’t seem upset by it.”

  Callie rolls her eyes. “Oh, yeah, I’m sure he doesn’t care at all that his brand-new wife is criticizing the man he wants to turn into when he grows up!”

 
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