June rested her head against the back of her carriage seat and watched blue moths swirl in and out of dead tree holes. She decided moths were prettier than butterflies, just named worse. Hemlock sat next to her. He let go of a rein and stuffed two fingers into the space between his white clerical collar and Adam’s apple to itch at some sweat. They were the only two in the front carriage. He hadn’t said anything to her for the entire night—nobody wanted to acknowledge, out loud, the fact that the Sheriff hit her with a closed fist when he found her with a shaved head. Nobody even looked at her. A part of her enjoyed their shame being out in the open, hung like a big purple sign beneath her left eye. At least it stopped watering and she could see clearly. If she rubbed fingers against the bruise on her cheekbone, it felt like she could spread the swelling and soreness out evenly from under her eye, but it stung more and more as she did it. So she didn’t.
“So—erm—June,” Hemlock said, “Are you religious?”
“My parents were murdered in their sleep when I was eight-years-old.”
They rode in silence for a long time afterwards, until the Sheriff stepped through the cabin curtains and relieved Hemlock at the reins—forcing Hemlock’s bony ass to squeeze up next to hers. Hemlock stood and straightened his robes flat over his legs. They had peeled off the trail into a sidelong path. Sprouts of oily blue and pink grass coated the ground but there was no sign of much else.
“It should be right this way,” Hemlock said. “We should be able to smell bananas by now.”
Some navigator, this Hemlock.
All June could smell was the lavender pollen that seemed to cloud as a mist in the passing branches above. She watched the purple dogwood branches pass overhead and chose not to listen to him.
“Where are you taking us?” Sheriff asked. His voice made her chew at the inside of her cheek. Hemlock and Kensington switched spots again. June scooted closer against side railing in the suddenly crowded carriage. Kensington sat beside her with a smile. He ran a hand over her scalp. “This haircut might kill us.”
“We’re staying off the trail to avoid Gallows…obviously,” Hemlock said. “There are people nearby in this part of the forest that are neither friend or foe, but will put us up for a few days. Their names are Fergus and Freya.”
She’d heard those names before, somewhere. Or maybe she’d read it. Sheriff stood up, again, the tails of his coat slapped June in the face.
“Fergus and Freya? The moonshiners? You moron, move aside, we’ve already missed it. Fergus and Freya are old friends of mine.”
“Naturally,” Hemlock muttered as he sat back beside June. He gave the reins to Kensington and leaned into the cabin, tracing his index finger across the map on the wall. “I see no establishment printed anywhere near here.”
“Believe in what you can’t see,” Kensington said, smiling beneath his dead blue eyes. “If you navigate only by the map you’re at the mercy of its truth. Just because it ain’t printed on a map doesn’t mean it ain’t there. And just because something is on a map don’t mean it’s there. For one, Hastings ain’t exactly gonna be waiting when—” His eyes met hers. “Well, you all get the point.”
The carriage jackknifed around, causing Sheriff to lean up against her. They hadn’t spoken for the last two days since she’d cut her hair, save the occasional order to retie the tarpaulin or grease one of the wheels. She fixed her gaze forward, hoping to never see the chariot of Gallows barreling out of that darkness. Torches from the carriage reflected red on the eyes of a hairy arachnid creature scuttling just inside the surface of the forest. She leaned forward, but it wasn’t the Banshee, it was too small, too common. Something crawled up her leg.
“Easy,” Kensington said with his silkiest whisper. It was just his hand, skating up and down her thigh. She smiled, crossed her ankles, and stared forward at the scarlet foliage hanging over the trail. It had changed from how it used to be. Cedar brush sprouted between tree trunks, clear as glass. She fixed her eyes on the darkness ahead and nowhere else; somewhere, at the end of this, she’d meet the person who killed Mom and Pop.
“Do you think this is what the bottom of the sea looks like?” Kensington asked, continuing to dust his fingers along the top of her thigh. She continued to stare forward. She felt her cheeks flaring red. This was the first time she’d been touched—she’d been hit—but never touched by a man. All the other slags from Hastings made it look so easy to just throw themselves on someone as if their bodies weren’t even their own. She’d always gracefully changed the subject whenever conversation drifted to her empty romance history.
Her words left her body, as if they were two separate things.
“While the rest of the children in Hastings broke into romantic pairs, I watched on, shoveling shit out of the cow stalls to feed my younger brother,” she whispered to Kensington. “But I don’t envy those flower children. I pity them. For Hastings girls, their husband is their world, their rising sun—because that’s how it’s supposed to be.” She lifted his hand from her thigh and placed it on her barren scalp. “Hang tradition. I’m my own person. My ambitions are my own.” She turned to look up into his blue eyes but doubted there was anything inside them. “I’ll kill you if you touch me again.”
Kensington rolled his bottom lip between his teeth. He was either contemplating her sentence or reading it like brail on her prickly head. He lifted his hand off her and slowly gripped the reins.
“You’re welcome to your own ambitions, Ms. Foster.”
“Just call me Foster.”
She leaned into the side of his ear, so not a flea in his smooth blonde hair could eavesdrop.
“I’m to be no housewife,” she said. “When I get the reward money for Chambers, you may scarcely see me. I won’t be assumed in marriage like some slave girl.”
Sheriff lifted his lips off his teeth like a horse. He wrapped a loose thread of her tunic around his finger.
“I assure you no wife of mine could be labeled as ordinary. When you’re signed over to me, you can pursue anything you so desire, as long as you’re mine.”
Signed over to me. Something swam inside of her belly at the phrase. The state would notarize her as his property, as if she were a horse. But if giving up that meant the freedom to find her parents murderer, so be it. The crap-shoveling indignities hardened her anyways, and they would soon end. And the prettiest flowers always grew from shit.
“I’m glad we understand each other,” she said, looking at the cocoons hanging down from branches.
“Of course,” Sheriff said, brushing her cheek with his fingers and cupping her chin in the palm of his hand.
She just stared forward.