She crested the last rise. The house nestled in the bosom of the hill. The small plateau seemed made for them, chiseled by God for their security, to hold them like a perfect secret. She held her breath, hoping for some hint of life, and heard nothing but the far-off snap of a branch. Everything stood still. She could not make out the smoke from the chimney, and despite the late hour, no lamps shone in the windows. Elspeth began to run. She tripped, and her pack shoved her into the snow. Clawing with her hands, digging with her feet, she pushed herself upright and rushed toward home.
Closer, she noticed a hollow in the snow, next to the front door. A bear, she thought, a wolf, but nausea welled in her belly and said different. A glimpse of color spurred her on. The hole drew her toward it, and she feared that it would swallow her, as she'd once seenfrom this very hilltopa tornado envelop a hundred-foot oak and leave nothing but a ragged gap where the roots had been. The color flickered again, a small swatch of red reaching out from the darkness like the Devil's forked tongue. The screen door clapped against the house as Elspeth pitched herself forward and fell to her knees. There, dressed in her nightgown, lay Emma, the youngest, her blond curls matted with blood. The red ribbon holding her hair waved in the wind, almost free. The snow had melted and then refrozen in an obsidian mass beneath her. A fine layer of powder had settled on her gown and face, and Elspeth removed her gloves to brush it away. Emma had been shot. The cold had puckered the skin around the clean bullet wound on her forehead, the blood there a thin red ring. Elspeth whimpered a small, ferocious noise, and rubbed her hands together before she dared to pull a few loose strands of hair from the wound and tuck them back behind the girl's ear. If these images didn't cause Elspeth instant revulsion, Emma might merely be sleeping. The snow gone, her hair in place, Emma looked more like herself, and that made Elspeth's pain burn brighter. She wished to call out, to scream for someone to help, but their Ark had been chosen for its isolation; Deerstand was the nearest town, a six-hour walk that Elspeth had barely made in daylight. She looked to the barn, where Caleb slept, and saw no signs of life there, either. The cold that they warded off with their structures and their fires had won: No warmth lingered on the hill. Nothing could be done. No help could be summoned.
The screen creaked behind her as Elspeth pushed open the front door. The house, usually heated to bursting on an early winter's night, offered no respite from the cold. The kerosene lamp stood unlit in the middle of the kitchen table, the matches beside it. She removed her pack, and shook the snow from her hat and shoulders, stalling. She didn't want to see what the light would offer. In the darkness she grasped the coatrack Jesse had built. Jackets hung on every hook. They were cold. She bent down and touched the neat alignment of shoes and boots beneath the windowsill next to the door and found no puddle of melted snow beneath them. She left her own buttons fastened and her laces tied tight.
She struck a match and touched it to the soaked wick of the lamp, the brightness causing her to turn away. She adjusted the flame and let her vision acclimate. Not three feet from her, Mary sprawled across the stovetop. Elspeth recognized the pattern of the dress Mary wore, a gift from an earlier trip. She, too, had been shot, but from behind. The stitching of her dresstidy and taut from the girl's own handkept her off the floor, the fabric tangling in the hardware of the stove front. As Elspeth backed away from the body, lowering the lamp, she made out Amos on the ground, four steps from his older sister. He must have been helping with the meal. He'd cut his hair since she'd last seen him, when it had hung down like a girl's, almost to his shoulders, and he'd developed a tic to keep it from his face, a sudden flick of the neck. Elspeth squatted to touch the bristly hair and wondered if the tic had remained after the hair was gone, the same way her father had sometimes fallen in the morning getting out of bed, forgetting he'd lost his leg to the millstones. She thought that Amos's eyes had been stolen, or shot out, but when the lamplight struck his face, she saw that two large brass buttons, the type found on overalls, obscured his blank gaze. She fell back onto her hands. She couldn't tell if her heartbeat had slowed to normal or stopped altogether. Like an insect, she crept backward, away from the bodies, until she hit the wall. They'd been babies once, swaddled and cradled in her arms. The crowns of their heads had smelled so sweet. How she'd held them. How she'd nuzzled and kissed them.
From The Kept by James Scott Copyright © 2014 by James Scott. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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