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       Hare Moon, p.3

           Carrie Ryan
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  The dead catch up with her and rake at the fences, which does nothing to calm her agitation. She grabs a stick from the ground and pokes at them, trying to force them away, but of course, they don’t notice or care or move. Not when she flays their skin. Not when she destroys their eyes with a sharp jab, despising the idea that they’re somehow looking at her and judging her.

  She’s about to scream in frustration, so she closes her eyes and inhales deeply, trying to find a way to calm the mortified burning of her skin. She’s standing just like that, strong and tall in the middle of the path with her fists clenched, when Patrick finds her.

  “Tabitha,” he says, his voice sounding smaller than she remembers.

  She smiles, of course she smiles, the world suddenly tilting into place. When she turns to him he’s different and the same all at once. The blurred bits of her memory sharpen into focus: his eyes are a deeper green, his lips fuller; his skin that much more lush and warm.

  “Patrick!” she cries out, racing to him.

  It isn’t until he fumbles with the gate that she sees he’s not alone, and her steps falter. She cocks her head, looking at the little boy grasping Patrick’s fingers.

  “Patrick?” she asks. She’s thrown off by his absences, by his being late. By the child.

  Patrick looks between the two of them. He pulls the boy in front of him and grasps his shoulders. “My brother,” Patrick says. She can tell he’s trying not to sound hesitant.

  “I …” She doesn’t know how to finish.

  “I need your help, Tabby,” Patrick says, and she hears the misery in his voice. He gently moves the boy aside, wraps his arms around her and presses his face into the hollow at her throat. Her hands go to his head, slip into his hair, but her eyes are still on the little boy, who just stands there. Watching.

  Patrick’s telling her how he missed her. How he loves her and didn’t know what to do when she wasn’t there before. How so much has gone wrong and his father has died. She nods and tells him she understands and how sorry she is for the loss of his father, but really she’s waiting for him to explain the boy. She feels the muscles in her cheeks straining and twitching, an aching pain beginning to radiate through her mouth.

  He tips his head back, his cheeks damp. “I need to ask you something,” he says, and she trembles, waiting for the words he’s whispered to her every night in her dreams—Run away with me.

  She’s waiting for him to unlock the world for her.

  “My brother’s sick,” he tells her.

  She looks at the child, her eyes wide. “Infected?” she breathes before she can stop herself.

  Patrick shakes his head adamantly and tugs on her hands, demanding her attention. “Your village, they have medicine. They can fix him.”

  She struggles to get away from him but he won’t let go.

  “Please, Tabitha, please,” he says. “We don’t know medicine the way your village does.”

  She jerks her hands until she’s free and stumbles away.

  “I thought you were going to ask me to leave with you,” she says, her forehead crinkled.

  “There’s nowhere for me to take you,” he says.

  “But you talked about the world. Life outside the Forest.” The bindings around her breasts are pulling too tight, squeezing her so that it’s difficult to breathe. The little boy’s just standing there. Staring at her.

  Patrick shakes his head. “I have to make my brother well first. I promised my mother I would take care of him. It was the last thing she asked of me before pushing me out of our village.”

  A bright grief begins to wail inside Tabitha. She presses her lips together, doing everything she can to swallow the growing agony. She turns away from Patrick. She wishes she had something to lean against, because she’s not quite sure her legs will support her anymore. But there’s nothing—just fences lined with the dead, waiting for any chance to make her theirs.

  “How did your father die?” Her voice is defeated.

  Patrick slowly walks toward her, she can feel when he’s just behind her. When he inhales, his chest brushes against her back and she closes her eyes, aching for him to take his finger and run it up her spine.

  “He was infected,” he says softly.

  She clears her throat. She will not sound weak. “How?” she asks.

  “A woman from another village. They checked her over when she arrived, but she’d hidden the bite by cutting off her own finger. They thought it was under control after my father got infected, that they could keep it from spreading farther, but …”

  Tabitha winces. “But your brother? And you?” She thinks about the book in the basement, the story of her village scribbled in the cramped margins of the words of God. It’s the way her world has always been.

  “He’s not infected, Tabby,” Patrick says. “Nor am I. I promise.”

  “The rest of your village?” She clenches her fists tighter and prays to God, Please, just this once, let the answer be what I need it to be. She’s been a loyal believer for so long, all she asks is for this one small token in return.

  “Chaos,” he says simply. “My mother shoved my brother into my arms and told me to save him. I ran to you.”

  She clenches her teeth to stop from crying out.

  She turns to face him. “Do you love me?” she asks.

  His expression softens and his lips part. “More than anything,” he says, stroking her cheek with the back of his fingers.

  She feels the tears in her eyes. She doesn’t want to give up on the dream of running away with him. She doesn’t want to turn back to her village and its claustrophobic fences and rules.

  But Patrick has asked for her help and she loves him. “Then I will help you,” she says.

  As planned, Patrick and his brother stay on the path until darkness falls and wraps itself thickly around the village. Tabitha spends the hours kneeling in the Sanctuary. Her lips tremble as she prays, the words hollow in her heart.

  When she’s sure no one will see them, Tabitha leads Patrick and his brother into the Cathedral. The boys is wide-eyed, astounded by the warren of hallways and the soaring Sanctuary. She takes them to her room and tells them she must leave them there.

  “I have duties,” she says. She doesn’t know why it’s so hard for her to meet Patrick’s eyes. Maybe it’s because he’s sitting on the bed. Her bed where she’s dreamt of him and thought of his fingertips sliding along the back of her calves to her knees.

  She shivers and looks down at her hands. If the boy weren’t there … would Patrick touch her like that when she returned?

  “We’ll be okay,” Patrick says. His little brother sits next to him on the bed, silent.

  “I’ll try to bring food,” she says. Patrick nods. She find it strange for him to be here in the Cathedral, with its sharp stone walls and ceilings, rather than on the path with the fresh air and the leaves and the light and the freedom.

  Tabitha walks to Midnight Office, welcoming the silence of thoughts.

  Tonight she’s slow with her prayers. Ami and Ruth kneel beside her, their heads bowed, but she sees them glance at her and then at each other. She knows they sense that something is wrong, but she keeps her fingers twined tight and her lips moving in praise of God and doesn’t allow her friends the chance to interrupt.

  When she goes back to her room there’s a promise of morning in the air, the sweetness of grass and dew. She slips open the door and Patrick is asleep under her blankets.

  The hare moon is still in the sky somewhere, allowing her to see his face. She stands for a bit, the moans of the Unconsecrated threading through the fences as she stares. He sleeps with his lips parted, one hand thrown out to the side as if waiting for her to slip her fingers into his.

  It’s as though he cares for nothing. Has no fears.

  Tabitha knows she herself sleeps curled around herself in a small ball, protecting herself from the world.

  He opens his eyes, sees her.

  She inhales at th
e intensity of his gaze. Something inside her flutters, warms, spreads. He doesn’t say anything as he slips from underneath the covers, the thin sheet trailing over his chest and down across his hips.

  He’s wearing nothing. She swallows.

  Her voice is a panicked squeak. “Your brother—”

  “Is in the room next door. It looked vacant—dusty. Never used.”

  She nods her head. No one’s stayed in that room as long as she’s been here. He comes closer. She swallows again. She’s still not looking directly at him and he raises a finger.

  He starts at her thumb, trailing his touch around her wrist, up the inside of her arm and across her elbow. Along her upper arm, so that his knuckles brush against her bound breasts.

  She’s not sure what breathing is anymore. What heat is.

  His fingertips dance over her collarbone, slip just lightly under the hem of her tunic, over her chest. His skin is sleep-warm, his eyelids heavy.

  “My Tabby,” he says, lowering his face to where her neck meets her shoulder. Every part of her is alive and waiting for that first touch of lips to skin. When it happens she opens her mouth, her body unable to contain air any longer.

  He kisses the line of her jaw and along her cheekbone. Into her ear he murmurs, “My love.”

  She stands there, eyes closed, wound up so tight she expects his next touch will cause her to explode and end the world.

  She wants to raise her hand and touch him. To wrap her fingers around his muscles and feel them twitch. She wants to make him catch his breath. She wants to make him feel as full of need and desire as she does at this moment.

  His lips are just skimming hers. She breathes him into her and he breathes her into him and she wonders if anything can be more intimate than this: this sharing of breath that is life.

  He slips a hand behind her neck, into her hair, untangling her bun. His fingertips dig into her scalp and she can feel that he is wound tight, like her. That in the next moment he will pull her mouth to his and they’ll ignite. She’ll crack open and be nothing but pure light energy, her soul bursting into the world to burn with his.

  The scream is high-pitched and long, and so unexpected that it takes Tabitha and Patrick too many heartbeats to understand what’s happening.

  In the hallway roars a commotion and banging and then the door flies open. “Tabitha!” Ruth comes racing in, blood trailing down her arm. She’s too far into the room before she realizes what she’s barged in on. Before she sees the naked young man with his arms around Tabitha.

  Ruth pauses, and in that moment, a tiny body struggles out of the darkness at her. It’s Patrick’s brother, his lips dripping blood and his fingers digging into the Sister’s knee as he bites at her calf.

  Tabitha screams. Footsteps pound down the hallway, and before she can warn anyone away Ami careens into the room. Patrick’s brother switches targets, pawing at the newcomer.

  Ruth stands there sobbing and Ami dissolves into panic just as fast, trying to fling her body to dislodge the Unconsecrated child but managing only to tangle herself in her tunic. To allow him access to her ankle. More footsteps in the hallway. The boy drops Ami and looks straight at Tabitha. He stumbles toward her and Patrick rears back.

  Tabitha doesn’t think. She just acts. She snatches the boy by his arm, twisting him to keep his teeth from her. With all of her strength she flings him across the room. He slams into the wall and Patrick shouts.

  “Out!” Tabitha screams at everyone. Patrick tries to approach his brother, who lies crumpled on the floor, little mewling moans dribbling from his lips. The boy starts to crawl toward them, his fingernails shredding and snapping against the stone floor as he tries to gain traction.

  Tabitha pushes the two infected Sisters from the room and grabs Patrick’s arm, tugging him behind her.

  He grips her hand as she slams the door. “I didn’t know,” he says. “I didn’t know,” he says again, as if repeating it over and over again will still the confusion inside.

  Tabitha sits in the corner of a cramped room while the rest of the Sisters figure out what to do next. The two infected Sisters are in the infirmary. They’re being given last rites and will be put down soon. “We’ll tell the village it was a bout of food poisoning,” the oldest Sister, their de facto leader, says. Everyone else murmurs in stunned agreement, but Tabitha stays silent.

  “Now, about the infected child,” the head Sister says. As if she’s leading some sort of meeting with an agenda.

  Patrick’s brother is still in Tabitha’s room. She knows he’s made it to the door because she thinks she can hear him scratching against it. Tiny moans float through the hallways. Patrick’s been tied to a bed in another room. Tabitha’s sure they gagged him or else she’d be able to hear him shouting for his brother, screaming that he didn’t know.

  She presses her lips together tightly. She’s very aware that everyone around her is struggling not to look at her. She’s trying to figure out what she believes. She’s trying to decide if it matters.

  She knows she asked him directly if his brother was infected and he said no. She doesn’t know if he was lying. She closes her eyes, remembering the earnest panic of his expression as she pulled him from her room.

  Tabitha thinks about the book in the tunnel room. About how long this village has lasted because it was cut off. How she has endangered that.

  Ruth and Ami, her only two friends in the Sisterhood, will be dead soon. Her family could have died as well. Everyone in the village could have become infected.

  “Someone will have to take care of the child,” the oldest Sister says.

  Tabitha rubs a hand over her face, shifting in her chair. It’s all her fault. Whether Patrick lied to her or not, she was the one to bring the infected child into the village. The little boy is her responsibility. Just as Patrick’s fate belongs to her.

  It would be so much easier if she knew Patrick lied to her. If she could believe that he knew all along that his brother was infected. But she knows her heart and her heart knows his, and this is how she is sure that Patrick told the truth.

  And yet it doesn’t matter that she believes him: belief is irrelevant in the face of fact. He brought the infection. She allowed it to happen.

  “I will take care of the infected child,” she says softly. She looks at the other women in the room—really looks at them. At how soft some of them appear. How old and tired. How they devote their lives to God and leave nothing for themselves.

  How unlike Tabitha. She who lusted. She who put desire for a different life—for a man, for her dreams—before God. She who almost brought down her village.

  “And the older brother?” the head Sister asks. For the first time Tabitha realizes the hesitation in her voice. She realizes how weak this woman is to be in charge of not just the Cathedral, but the fate of the village. She wonders if any of the rest of them know of the journal downstairs, know of the legacy of their survival.

  Tabitha thinks about taking Patrick’s hand and leading him down the path and away from the village. Of banishing herself and him together. She smiles, letting the dream roll around in her mind.

  “Him I will take care of as well,” Tabitha says.

  “About the circumstances in which the older boy was found …,” the head Sister begins, leaving an opening for Tabitha to fill in the blank.

  Tabitha stands and squares her shoulders. She keeps her chin level and her voice even as she says, “It is none of your concern.” She sweeps toward the door, black tunic floating around her ankles. She waits for the head Sister to challenge her, to maintain her authority and dress Tabitha down in front of her peers for what she has allowed to happen. But the old woman is silent.

  “What will you do?” one of the other Sisters asks, as if this is some sort of democracy where everyone can voice a thought.

  Tabitha pauses in the doorway, examining them, meeting their eyes one by one. Establishing her control. “I will do what is necessary,” Sister Tabitha respond

  The boy is small and broken and weak. His mewls are those of a newborn kitten. Tabitha steps into her room and walks toward the window easily avoiding his reach. He starts to pull himself across the floor toward her and she stands and stares at the Unconsecrated outside, past the fences.

  So much useless death. Such a waste.

  When the boy is closer Tabitha kneels and cups his cheeks in her hands. He tries to squirm, tries to twist and turn so that he can taste her. “May God show mercy on us both,” she whispers before snapping his neck and bashing his small fragile head against the stone floor.

  For a while she looks at him. If only Patrick had asked her to go away with him. If only they’d been on the path when the boy turned, he could have infected them both. They could have woken up dead, entwined together forever.

  As she unties Patrick’s ropes she avoids his eyes.

  But he grabs her and makes her look at him. “I didn’t know he was infected,” he says, his voice hoarse and lips dry. “My mother gave him to me, told me to take him away. I never knew.”

  Tabitha nods. “I believe you,” she says. And it’s true.

  “I would never lie to you, Tabby. I love you too much.”

  She nods again. She understands this as well.

  She tells him they put his brother in a special room—a safe place where Patrick can say good-bye. After he does, she tells him, she will lead him back into the Forest and away from the village and together they will find a way to live and love beyond this constricted world.

  He doesn’t question her as she pulls him down the stairs into the basement, or when she pulls aside the curtain and unlocks the hidden door. He follows her blindly as she leads him down the dark tunnel. She stops at the stairs climbing from the ground at the far end.

  They face each other and Tabitha inhales deeply, the scent of him mingling with the smell of old smoke and rot. She closes her eyes, trying to sear it into her memory. Slowly, she runs a hand up his arm, along his collarbone and around his neck until her fingers dig into his hair.

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