I take a deep breath of fresh air to calm my nerves. For the first time in weeks, I’ve left the confinement of a small house. My legs feel weak from the fast pace we’re walking, and my stabbed stomach protests every movement. Still, I press my lips together into a firm line and urge myself not to complain. If I show weakness, she’ll think I can’t handle the job and send me back.
Though I have changed in many ways, Preston remains teaming with life and appears immune to the passage of time. The business men walk briskly and with purpose, their pompous wives at their sides donning lacy bonnets and bell shaped skirts. They have smug faces and an aura of dominance of the kind only the higher class can afford as they tow their slaves along carelessly. I make eye contact with one of the younger slaves, who wears only a ripped dress that fits too loosely on her, and offer a small smile to comfort her. Her mistress catches my eye and glares at me icily, tilting her chin up to show superiority. I clench my fists and try to control my anger, but Lewis notices my slip and smacks my hand.
“What are you doing?” she hisses, and I look away grudgingly.
“Comforting her,” I sigh.
“Yeah, life’s rough. Keep walking.”
When we pass the main square, where Jarrah was almost hung and Isaac stabbed, I feel a tight knot in my stomach and the sudden urge to vomit. I walk nervously with my head down, the memories of seeing death still fresh in my mind. Afraid of being recognized, I steer clear of any police offers but Lewis angrily tilts my chin upwards, a frown plastered on her face.
“You don’t need to look like you’ll be shot if you make eye contact with anything other than the ground, you know. Confidence is key here. Always look busy and they won’t question you. There’s no point disguising you if you don’t act the part. Geez, how did you escape this far?”
“I always loved your sensitive side,” I mutter.
I study Lewis’ demeanour, and realize she’s right. Her posture is upright and tall, and she looks completely self-aware. She is sure-footed and doesn’t hesitate to walk through the smaller alleys. She’s always looking straight ahead with a destination in mind, never lingering in one place, though I know she is completely aware of her surroundings. I see why she goes unnoticed. She’s completely blended in with her surroundings, so much that you aren’t even sure if you saw her once you’ve looked away and by the time you look back to check, she’s already gone.
After what feels like forever, we finally reach the market. The crowd is respectably large, with the shouts of those bartering and trading in the air from all directions. The smell of manure hangs over the air, with horses, goats, and cows all over the place. Fruits and vegetables lie squashed on the floor, flies buzzing in delight around them. The booths are packed with people carrying baskets and hugging their purses close.
“Stay close,” says Lewis, an instruction I gladly agree to as she steps into a general store.
“Morning, Walt!” she greets cheerfully, a smile plastered on her face where a scowl sat moments before.
“Morning! Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Times are rough,” she shrugs, “how’s the family? Y’all are okay?”
“Johnny’s doing swell,” he says, “his fever went down and El reckons ’ell be fine.”
I stare it her in confusion. Is this what she means by keeping a low profile?
“Glad to hear.”
“And what of Alex? He hasn’t visited in a while either--I thought you’d both died or something! The riot really gave us a scare,” laughs Walt breathlessly.
Lewis winces as if he slapped her, her perfect charade facing a single crack. She quickly recovers; her smile drawn back on in seconds.
“Alex is--is fine as well. He’s just got other duties, but he asked me to give his love to the whole family.”
“How sweet of him,” says a woman, beaming as she comes into view from a back room.
“Mizzus Hemmings!” greets Lewis, grinning.
“Ah, the two of you always were my favourite pair,” she says with a smile, reaching for Walt’s hand lovingly, “I wish he’d come visit with you.”
Lewis ignores my questioning glance, keeping her eyes ahead, and I make a mental note to ask her about it later.
Mrs. Hemmings is a woman of about sixty with a broad smile. Her hair is greying and long, knotted into a tight braid. Her warm brown eyes study Lewis’ with admiration and love, the way a grandmother would to her children’s kids. She reminds me of Janice, and I feel a pang of sadness. Her granddaughter Annie, the little red-headed girl who helped hide us on her farm, must be all grown up by now. Time has flown.
Walt Hemmings, on the other hand, has strikingly blue eyes that seem to constantly be reading you. His pale skin is lined with many wrinkles, and his white hair gives away much of his age, but still he is friendly and inviting. The way he looks at his wife painfully reminds me of the way Jarrah looked at me, and I cast my eyes away, unable to look at the potential future that we would never see come true.
“So, dear? Who is your friend? Don’t be rude,” scolds Mrs. Hemmings.
Lewis rolls her eyes, and nods at me to introduce myself.
I look at her nervously, afraid Walt and his wife will recognize me, but he just reaches his hand out in greeting.
“The name’s Walter Hemmings. And you are?”
“Al--,” I begin, before catching Lewis’ glare, “Adeline.”
“Al Adeline?” he laughs, “that’s unusual.”
“Just Adeline,” I say awkwardly.
His wife’s eyes widen in surprise when she sees my face, but she gives me a quick smile. “Arlene Hemmings. It’s delightful to meet you--though you look awfully familiar. Are you new in town?”
“I’m actually--” I begin, but Lewis interrupts me.
“Have ye got beans, Walt? I hate to cut the meeting short, but we’re in a bit of a bind.”
He looks flustered at her outburst, but points to a shelf near the back of the small store. “10 and a half cents a quart, if you’re wondering.”
“Why, they’ve gone up! Don’t you hold out on me, Walt!” she teases.
He sighs. “It’s been hard lately, but I assure you they’re the cheapest in town.”
“As usual,” Lewis calls from the back of the store.
Mrs. Hemmings looks at me earnestly, as if trying to continue the conversation, so I quickly follow Lew’s lead to avoid any further questions from her.
The bell at the front of the store rings, and someone walks in. I quickly duck my head behind a shelf, feigning an immense interest in a jar of molasses.
“Morning, Missus Hemmings.”
“Morning, Dolly. You have the list?”
“I do,” the voice says briefly. It is young and masculine. I can’t help peaking a glance, and see a boy of about 15 bobbing nervously on his toes. Mrs. Hemmings scans the list and nods.
“The pork’s back there, and the rice the shelf across from it. Let me know if you’ll be needing anything, and don’t you dawdle. Master Fred’ll be waitin for ya, won’t he?”
“Yes ma’am,” says the boy quietly, walking straight in my direction. I eye the dog tags hanging around his neck, stating which plantation he’s from and who owns him. The whole town knows who he is, where he is allowed to go, and what he is allowed to buy. My heart goes out to him, and I feel the urge to just rip off the tags and tell him to run away; though I know it would never work. He scans my own neck enviously, and I realize nothing hangs around it. A symbol of my freedom, but a dangerous one nonetheless.
Lewis interrupts my thoughts, clearing her throat.
“Ready to go, Adeline?”
“Yeah,” I say faintly.
She hands Mrs. Hemmings the money, who greets us heartily on our way out. Lewis steps out of the store with a satisfied smile. I feel Arlene’s eyes trailing my back curiously the whole way out, so I try and get as far from the store as fast as I can.
“I don’t get it,” I say as soon as we’re out of earshot, “didn’t you say we were stealing?”
“But they seem to love you so much--and you paid for everything! You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Whatever you say, Adeline,” says Lewis with a straight face, but a smile tugs at her lips.
My eyes widen when I see a faint bulge in Lew’s coat pocket.
“How? When?” I ask immediately.
“You’ll have to be more specific.”
“I was with you--how come no one saw you?”
“The boy walked in. It’s a simple decoy. I just waited for the right moment to slip the bread in my pocket.” She shrugs nonchalantly. “If I pay for what they see, they won’t suspect that I didn’t pay for what they didn’t see.”
“How could you do that to them? Don’t you see the way they admire you?” I ask, suddenly angry, “I thought you only stole from rich people!”
“Any free man is richer than a slave, is he not?”
“Lewis!” I shriek, but she gives me a dirty look and I instantly close my mouth. A few people look at us curiously, and she swiftly turns on the next street, picking up her pace. As soon as we reach the safehouse, I storm off to my room, my hands feeling unusually dirty and my head pounding.