I Love You, Jilly Sanders, page 16
“That woman—what’s her name? Rosetta?—called us hippies and told us to get out of her store. We only wanted to warm up.”
The mention of the store clerk’s name had the man nodding slightly. “She don’t like us, that’s for sure. And if she thought you two were part of our place, it’s no wonder she threw you out.” He walked down the two steps toward them.
“Who’s your friend?”
“This is Jilly,” Tage said, and he gave the man his own name.
“I meant who’s the friend who told you about our place?”
“Kane Randolla. In fact, we saw him a few days ago down near Briar Rose.”
The man narrowed his eyes and stared at them thoughtfully for a minute. “Is that where you’re from?” he asked.
“We’re from St. Lawrence County. And you might as well know right up front, we’ve left home. It don’t matter none if you don’t let us stay for a couple days,” Tage added, “we’re never going back there. We’re old enough to be on our own.”
The man turned around and walked back up the steps. Jilly thought he was going to ignore them, but he looked back at them when he reached the doorway. “You can come in for a while and warm up.”
They climbed up the sloping front lawn and went up the steps. The inside of the cabin was one large room filled with picnic tables, the kind that had the benches attached. Almost every table was occupied by a group of people. The buzz of conversation died down the second Tage and Jilly stepped inside.
But when the man, whose name they still didn’t know, simply moved away toward the front of the room, which Jilly now saw was partitioned off, everyone slowly started talking again.
Jilly glanced around the room as they followed the man, trying to be covert, searching for a child with creamy blonde hair. There must have been close to eighty people in the room, though, and she didn’t see any small girl that resembled Gwen.
“My name’s Flynn,” the man said. He had reached the end of the room; there was a cut-out in the wall that served as a pass-through for what Jilly could see was a kitchen of sorts. A blackened coffee pot sat atop a wood stove. The young woman in the kitchen poured three cups of hot water then slid them across the counter.
“We have instant coffee,” he said flatly, pointing to three plastic butter containers on the ledge of the window. “Coffee, creamer, and sugar’s there.”
He waited while Tage stepped up and made both his and Jilly’s coffee, shaking the granules out from each container since there was no spoon offered.
“Dinner time is coming up in a few hours; you’re welcome to stay for that and then . . . we’ll see.” He took his cup of hot water, without any added coffee, and walked away.
His words, although harmless on the surface, sent Jilly’s heartbeats sliding into one another. He seemed welcoming, but underneath she felt something scary, as though he knew something about them they didn’t know. She stood there holding the chipped cup and saw the liquid brown surface shake slightly with the uncontrollable shiver of her hand.
“Let’s sit down,” Tage said.
Feeling rather as though she’d come into the food court of an extremely strange mall, Jilly made her way to an empty picnic table. Tage sat down beside her.
She leaned over and whispered, “This is weird.”
Tage nodded, but he didn’t look at her. His gaze swept across the room. “They’re okay,” he said. “They can’t do anything to us.”
She would have felt better about this assertion if he’d been moving his lips when the words were hissed out. She took a sip of her coffee. It tasted horrible, like watered-down, sweetened dirt. She took another sip.
“Who’re you?” This came from a high-pitched voice from underneath the table.
Jilly ducked her head and met the huge brown eyes of a boy. He grinned up at her and she saw he was missing his two front teeth.
“I’m Jilly,” she told him. “Who’re you?”
“Share,” he lisped.
“Thayre?” she guessed, and was rewarded by another grin and a nod. “Well, come on out. What are you doing under the table?” She looked over his shoulder. “And who’s that with you?”
“That’s Windy and Summer and Hank and Shye.”
Jilly’s heartbeat skipped erratically. “Come out from under there,” she said.
They did, swarming like large ants onto the seat across from Tage and her. Five small heads lined up in a row and stared.
“Are you Shye?” she asked the smallest girl, but she didn’t really need to ask. The girl had Gwen’s diminutive size, but her face was the image of her father’s. Her dark hair was pulled back in a careless ponytail, wisps trailing down her cheeks.
“She’s Shye, but she’s not bashful,” Thayer said.
“I not,” Shye said. She smiled and crawled up on the tabletop. “You man?” she asked Jilly, reaching out and grabbing hold of Tage’s ear.
Seeing the child brought everything they were trying to do into sharp focus, and for the first time Jilly wondered at the audacity of their plan. Tage and she were planning on purchasing another human being—a child so innocent she didn’t yet speak in complete sentences. Oh God! How could they steal her away? It didn’t seem possible this baby was virtually a prisoner here—torn from the mother she didn’t even know.
That thought sobered her. How could Jilly leave her there when she knew that sooner or later Shye would grow up and ask why her own mother had left her behind?
She couldn’t. That was the truth. She couldn’t do that to Shye and she couldn’t do that to Gwen.
“Let’s go talk to the council,” she said to Tage. She stood up.
Tage yanked her back down. “What do you think you’re doing?” he hissed. “We can’t simply go charging up to these people and blurt out what we want!”
“Can you think of a better way?” she asked calmly.
Tage stared at her open-mouthed.
“I didn’t think so,” she said. “Now come on.”
She stood up again and scanned the room until she found Flynn. She beckoned him over to the table. His stance was formidable when he approached.
“These kids bothering you?” he asked gruffly.
“Not at all,” Jilly said. “We—we’ve—well, we haven’t been completely honest with you.”
He narrowed his cold green eyes at her. “What are you saying?”
Tage stood up. “What she’s trying to tell you is that Kane didn’t just happen to tell us about this place. He sent us here.”
Flynn bit down, tensing his jaw. “And why would he do that?”
Jilly swallowed. “He sent us to pick up Shye.”
“Really,” Flynn drawled, but he sounded as though he didn’t believe a word she said.
“He did,” Jilly said. “He said to bring her to—”
“Now I just don’t believe you’re telling me the truth, little girl.”
Tage put his hand protectively on Jilly’s arm. “Why would she lie?” he asked.
Flynn shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we ask him?” He jerked his chin forward, indicating some place behind them.
Jilly whipped her head around and stared up into Kane’s smiling face.
Flynn led them to a cabin standing outside of the main group of buildings and pushed them in front of a group of unsmiling men.
The council, Jilly thought. This is where they should have come to present their case, not to Flynn. She bit back a cry of anguish when Flynn himself took the center seat at the long table—the only piece of furniture in the room.
“The first thing you two should know is that we are a law unto ourselves,” Flynn said. “We don’t lie, we don’t steal, and we don’t cheat. Everybody who lives here knows our rules, and if they can’t abide by them, they’re free to go. If they break our laws, and they want to stay, they are punished according to the infraction.”
“Wait a minute,” Tage said.
“Shut up,” Flynn said, his voice calm. “Listen.” He took a deep breath. “Outsiders don’t like us, and we don’t like them. But we get along because we each stay to our own.
“You two came in here from the outside, tried to taint our ways, and worse, planned to steal one of our children.”
“She’s not yours!” Jilly said, her voice hot with anger. “She’s Gwen’s daughter!”
“No. We at the commune don’t acknowledge traditional parenting; it doesn’t work, as I’m sure you already know. In your world, children are poor or rich, educated or not, depending on the people each was born to. Here, every child belongs to every man and woman and all get an equal share of love, money, education, and everything else we have.
“You two may not agree with our ways, but we didn’t ask you to come barging in here because you thought you knew best!”
Jilly felt her stomach roll—the way he talked made her feel sick. He was twisting around their motives, making it seem as though they were the ones doing something wrong! She knew for a fact that not having real parents hurt kids in ways they couldn’t even explain!
“You must be punished for breaking our rules,” Flynn said, his voice cold. “We can’t allow you to walk in here and try something like this without facing the consequences. If we do, the entire commune will be at risk and our people will lose faith in the council. Once your punishment is met, you’ll be free to leave the same way you came.”
Jilly saw the rest of the men sitting behind the table nod in agreement. She shot a look at Tage. What could they possibly do to punish them?
She found out soon enough.
“Each of you will fulfill some essential function for the commune: work duty. When your assigned task is completed, we’ll bring you back to the main hall and you may leave. I’ll take care of the young man,” Flynn said. “Kane, since you were the one lied about by this young woman, her punishment will be decided upon by you.”
Kane nodded and gave Jilly an unfathomable look.
“It’ll be okay,” Tage said to her. “Just do whatever work he asks of you, and then we’ll be okay.”
She licked her lips, swallowed convulsively, and nodded. “I will,” she said, hoping to reassure him. “I won’t do anything stupid.”
Flynn came up to Tage. “Let’s go. I’ve got a mile of snow I’m going to see if you can move.”
Tage reached out and grabbed her hand for one final squeeze. “Don’t be scared,” he said.
But then he was gone.
“Yeah, Miss Smart-ass,” Kane said, after everyone else had left. “Don’t be scared.”
Jilly straightened her shoulders. “I’m not scared of vermin,” she said. But she was, and she suspected he knew it.
“I’m surprised you know a word that big,” he mocked. He grabbed her arm and steered her out of the cabin.
She stumbled as she walked, but he held her upright, forcing her to slip-slide as they forged ahead. When they came to a small cabin, he pushed open the door. “Out!” he said, and Jilly caught a glimpse of three teenagers rushing wordlessly out the door and then she was alone with Kane in the deserted cabin.
He flopped down on a mattress pushed in the corner, linked his hands behind his head, and stared up at her. “Guess you two idiots thought my business was going to take me out of town or somethin’.” He laughed, low and harsh. “For future reference, you might like to know I don’t have any business other than this commune and its people.”
A lot of good knowing that now did her, Jilly thought dryly. “Why don’t you just tell me what you want me to do and let me get it over with,” she suggested. Then she could figure out a new plan to rescue Shye, she thought to herself. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and stared back at him.
He eased his way to the edge of the mattress. “Come here,” he demanded.
Jilly swallowed. She heard the sound deep in the back of her throat.
“Just tell me—”
“I said come here.”
Her feet faltered a bit as she walked forward, reluctant in her bones to draw close to this man, scared in a way she’d never felt before, in a way she couldn’t explain, and suddenly the thought of Shye was at the far end of a black tunnel.
She stared at Kane and felt consumed by an icy hard fear that felt nothing like the nervous half-excited fear she felt when Tage was near. Kane’s hand came out and wrapped itself around her ankle. He gave a great yank and she tumbled onto the mattress with him.
“Don’t,” she said. She struggled, but he flipped her over on her back, linked his leg over hers and pinned her in place. “I’ll tell Flynn!” she gasped.
Kane reached down and pushed her coat up around her waist. He fumbled with the snap of her jeans and pulled the zipper down. “Tell him anything you want. Are you forgetting who told me to find something for you to do for the good of the commune?” He laughed. With one hand he held her wrists above her head
and with the other he yanked her pants down. “Here at the commune, little girl, fucking is a duty for the females.”
Who knew that an hour could change a life forever? Jilly pushed her face into the mattress, but the smell gagged her.
“Don’t be puking on my bed, or you’ll be cleaning it,” Kane said.
She shoved her hands into her coat pockets and struggled not to scream. It was far too late for screaming. She wrapped her fingers around the cold metal of Otto’s rings, surprised they had stayed in her pocket, her mind burning with hatred for the man standing in front of her. She’d like to take those rings and stuff them down his throat, make him choke until blood spit out of his eyes!
He picked up her underpants and jeans from the floor where he’d thrown them after pulling them from her body, knelt on the bed beside her, and tossed them over her face. “Put those on!” he ordered.
She lunged at him, the rings in her hand, and caught him off guard. They twisted around on the bed together for a few minutes. She wanted to bite him, to claw him, to kill him dead. She would never leave Shye with this animal.
But he overpowered her, catching hold of her swinging hands and binding them to the bed with a knuckle-whitening grip.
“You want it again?” he asked, soft as poison.
Tears leaked out of the corner of her eyes and she shook her head.
He released her. “Then get dressed and get up.” He sauntered over to the door. “When you get yourself together go up to the main house. I’m done with you.”
The slam of the cabin door reverberated, and she felt the shock in her body. She was naked from the waist down. Her thighs were wet, smeared with blood and with semen. She crawled out of bed, found a t-shirt in a pile on the floor and tried to clean herself the best she could. She wanted to cry long and hard, but except for those tiny, inconsequential tears that had leaked from her eyes a moment ago, she felt like her entire being had solidified into an icy mound of useless life.
She crawled back on the bed and pulled on her underwear and jeans, found her boots, and tugged them on. When she stood up, the room tilted. She willed herself not to faint. She had to get back up to the main cabin, back to Tage, and see what they could do to salvage this situation, to save a little girl nobody here thought was very special, a child who was nothing more than part of the group.
Or was she mixing Shye up with herself?
Think about those things later, she ordered herself. Don’t think about it now because if you do, you’ll fall down dead here in this cabin and maybe nobody will ever see you again.
Or maybe Kane would come back looking for her.
The thought galvanized her into action. She tugged down her coat and ran awkwardly outside, leaving the door open to suck in the winter’s chill. She hoped he froze to death tonight.
Tage was waiting for her in the main cabin, sitting at the same table they’d had their mud-coffee at earlier. When he saw h
“What the hell happened to you?” he asked.
She fell into his arms, quivering uncontrollably.
“Tell me,” he demanded. “For Christ’s sake! You’re scaring me!” he whispered, holding her tightly, tighter, tighter.
“You two can go,” Flynn said, his voice coming from behind her.
She wretched herself out of the comfort of Tage’s grip and spun around to face Flynn. His face was bland as air as he looked at her unforgivingly. Did he know what Kane had done to her? Or only suspect?
“Kane told me you’ve completed your punishment,” he said, nodding toward
Kane, who sat at the closest picnic table, one booted foot kicked up on his knee, his elbows cranked back on the table. “And Tage has finished shoveling the paths to the outer cabins. You’re free to go.” He turned around and started walking away.
“Wait a minute,” Jilly said. She heard the rage in her voice, and was fiercely glad it was there.
Flynn turned around slowly and stared at her.
“Bring Shye here, and make sure she’s dressed warmly.”
Flynn smiled in disbelief. “I don’t think so,” he said. “You can tell Gwen if she wants to see the child, she can come back here anytime she wants.”
“No,” Jilly said flatly. “I don’t think so.” She pointed her index finger at Kane, who scrambled upright from his casual position at the picnic table. “He stole from me.” She faced Flynn. “You said your people didn’t steal.”
Kane walked over to stand beside Flynn. “I didn’t steal anything from this little bitch.” He looked up at Flynn. “I know our rules the same as you do.”
Flynn nodded, but he didn’t look pleased. He turned back toward Jilly. “You may think—something—was stolen from you, but here at the commune—”
“He stole my grandfather’s wedding rings,” Jilly said.
“What?” Kane cried. “I didn’t steal anything!” His boots struck the wooden floor hard and noisy, and his face paled.
“Look in his coat pocket. I saw him take them.”