The forest air was sweet and sticky with the smell of bananas. Hemlock sat between her and the Sheriff—his head and shoulders had gradually sunk forward over his knees, until eventually his bald head lolled back and forth over his legs with the carriage bumps. She hadn’t even looked in Kensington’s direction for hours and decided she wouldn’t make eye-contact with him ever again. He defied her silence with ugly humming of I’ve been cuckolded by the Banshee. She suffered it. Every now and then, the humming would stop and she’d hear him take a gulp and screw the metal flask shut, then he’d go right back to the damned humming. Dana was on the back of her mind; it had been heavily unacknowledged until a few minutes ago, when her tired gaze fixed on a freckle on her forearm. Dread and guilt filled her mind as if they snuck up behind her. At some point she’d find out if her six year old brother was dead.
The carriage rubbed against brush until Kensington pulled the reins and they stopped just before a branch slapped her across the forehead. They were parked in a leafy blue alley beside a creek. Pink spores drifted everywhere in the air. A brick chapel faced outwards from a tangle of trees that looked as if they’d grown around and over it. Blue ivy grew up the chapel’s front face, over a round wooden door and colorful stained glass windows. This was not a place someone found on accident. The creek purring into darkness around the bend was the only sound, until one of the horses pushed shit out its asshole right in front of her face.
“Wait,” Hemlock said, rubbing his eyes. “I can’t show my face at this chapel—I betrayed some orphans that used to live here.”
“We’re fine.” Kensington said with such assurance that she felt the need to be on alert. “Moor the horses to the tree.” She swung a leg up over the side of the panel and dropped to the ground, immediately regretting it once pain shot up the back of her heels. The two mules had their noses in the creek for probably two minutes before lifting their heads and chomping on water as it spilled from their mouths. “What do orphans even have for you to betray?” she heard Kensington mutter at Hemlock as the two men went inside. The mules pushed their noses into her chest, playfully. It was the first time they hadn’t seemed frightened.
“I wish you understood all the secrets I’ve wanted to get off my chest,” she said to them.
She chuckled, looping the horse leads around two maple trees. But then undid them, the horses had no intention of running.
“No really,” the prisoner said as she stepped back into the cabin. His green eyes were wide, almost friendly. “Try me.”
“If I told you my secrets I’d have to kill you, Wesley Chambers.”
The corner of his eyes seemed to droop.
“Likewise,” he said. “But you’re going to kill me anyways—or at least you think you’re going to succeed in killing me, right? Let’s start with the blunderbuss in Sheriff’s Office, was it loaded?” She grabbed the reins from the carriage and drew the horses back with careful steps until the hatch of the caravan knocked against the chapel’s brick wall. Then she looped a rope through each spoke of the back wagon wheels and tied those to the tree.
“Cozy?” she asked, resting an arm on the back of each mule and dusting her hands off animatedly to annoy the prisoner. One of the mules whipped its tail and a few pink spores blew inside the cabin. He stood with his hands on the bars and blew the spores away from his nose.
“I used to live here,” he said.
“Pardon?” she asked.
“June!” Sheriff shouted from inside. She hated when men yelled her name, just assuming that she’ll drop whatever she’s doing and run to them like a house-dog. But, that’s exactly what she found herself doing; she swung down off the carriage, nearly having to swat the dusty motes from her face like mosquitoes. As beautiful as they were, they got in her eyes.
Inside the chapel, the men tottered like aimless cattle, the Sheriff’s boot heels were loud on the marble floor. She craned her head to the domed ceiling, admiring stained glass artwork of King James Gallant on the slanted windows. It smelt of dust, bananas, and old books. She walked between the pews, remembering the funeral service for Mom and Pops back in Hastings.
“Is it illegal to be here?” she asked.
Kensington smashed his elbow through a glass pane of Gallant’s face and looked out at the stream. Pink flakes of pollen wafted inside.
“Pheromones,” Kensington said of the motes, stepping on stage behind the alter. He tore off a cupboard door with both hands and collected an unlabeled bottle of wine from within. He blew dust off its surface and smiled. “The pheromones in the air got a bit of a sweeter poison than the blue Vesper thorns though. If you inhale any of them you’ll enter the profoundest of ecstasies.” He scratched at the inside of his elbow. “Or you’ll hallucinate a fierce horror show. One or the other, or sucklike.”
He sniffed, it echoed.
“This doesn’t look like a moonshiners place,” Hemlock said, reading scripture etched into ancient granite slabs.
“The Church is a front,” Kensington said, sliding his finger under a marble tile and prying it from the floor.
“To hide from Gallows?” Hemlock asked.
“To hide from good people like me,” Kensington said, taking his badge out of the flask pocket of his shirt and then stashing it back out of sight. Hemlock and Kensington slid the marble slate across the floor with an awful scraping sound that echoed around her. Careful not to drop the slate on his fingers, Hemlock set the tile down slowly and yanked his hands into his belly. Wooden steps dropped off into darkness. Sheriff led the way down single file. Hemlock pulled the lid back on top of them and everything went dark.
The air was unnaturally hot. Hemlock lit the tunnel around them with the crisp strike of a match, and the smell of sulfur filled her nostrils. It didn’t smell of dust anymore, just bananas. A square of wooden beams framed the tunnel every ten feet or so in front of them—some of the sideways ceiling beams sagged a bit more than she would have liked. The beams weren’t straight. Each square frame seemed to tilt in a different direction than the next, so looking straight down the tunnel made her dizzy. A black spider lowered from its web just in front of her nose, curling its legs in the air. She flicked it forward into the darkness. They followed behind Sheriff, who led the pack despite not having the lit-match.
“I’d prefer not to be buried alive,” Hemlock said. “Just a preference of mine.”
She walked with a hand against the wall, and then pulled it back when a blue worm poked out from the soil. There weren’t any cobwebs in the passing orange light. Dirt beneath her boots was hard and packed down. The air got hotter, soggier. The tunnel opened to an underground chasm lit by torches stuck in the dirt walls. Jack-o-lantern, was her first thought. Holes carved into the winding cavern glowed yellow with candles. Men hunched over to push wheelbarrows full of jars through the tunnels. It was a little orange city in the ground.
Through a haze of steam, a gigantic metal vat sat in the chasm’s center, above burning purple coals with heaps upon heaps of banana peels sweating on the ground around it. What she smelt was somewhere between rotten fruit and potent alcohol. There was hardly a spot of dirt available for her to set her foot down between the banana peels when she finally stopped to look up the vat. They stood as close as the heat would allow, staring up the massive surface of the moonshine still. Condensation dripped down the metal face, occasionally dropping into the coals with a hiss. Men above poured buckets of thick blue honey into the batch, exciting a rumbling boil inside the metal contraption, as if it were some gigantic iron heart.
“Why all the bananas?”
“Bananas and birch bark make its flavor…bearable,” a round man said, limping towards them on a cane. Bottle shaped glasses rested low on the bridge of his nose, above a bushy grey mustache. “And making things enjoyable are what separates us from animals in the first place.”
“Fergus!” Kensington said, bending down to hug the old man.
Fergus scratched white hairs on his shirtless chest. “What brings Patrick Kensington to an old man’s distillery?” Fergus asked, having to raise his voice over the booming pipes.
“We need to lay low for a while, maybe a day or two.”
An elderly woman, looking like a hunched over Fergus with no mustache and longer hair, came limping over with a long piece of parchment shaking in her hand.
“Fergus, you never listen, I told you these shipments had to go out yester—oh hello there, guests, my name’s Freya,” she said, her voice sounded like a seagull’s caw over the rumbling boil. “Make yourselves at home.”
Fergus limped towards a tunnel. They followed. They swirled deeper underground, down a trail stocked along the wall with crates. Browned banana peels filled the gaps between moonshine jars inside.
“Careful not to touch any crates, we fill some of ’em with snakes to ward off thieves,” Fergus said. “I’ve accrued a mean history of unfortunate handshakes.” He held up a mangled hand with two fingers missing. “One with the rattlesnake being the second most unfortunate. It is behind only the wedding band on my finger that earned me six confused years beside a trash fire that fancies itself my ex-wife. I’m indebted to that snake for swallowing the ring and allowing me to find Freya.” After a moment of hesitation, Fergus burst into laughter, and, following his lead, they all did too. “We sell our shine to Gallows from time to time,” Fergus said as they walked, “He’s not as frightening as he seems—quite reasonable once reasoned with. Gallows knows we mean no harm, so he causes us no harm. It’s the civilized folk I worry about; the ones who walk blindly upright by the book without a lick of their own judgment.”
June held her tongue as Fergus continued.
“There’s no reason why moonshine should be illegal. When it’s not hurting anybody it’s not hurting anybody—King only made it illegal because it’s more profitable to fine violators. Anyways, we’re here.” They came to an open area complete with cots and a circular table where a few men played cards beneath a lantern. “I’m not responsible for any possessions that get nicked,” Fergus whispered.
“You allow thieves to stay here?” Kensington asked.
“Son, don’t confuse poor men for thieves,” Fergus said. Something smiled inside of June when Fergus called the Sheriff ‘son’. It reminded her of the way Pops used to talk to lesser men. “When drifters like yourself need a place to lay their head, I welcome them with open arms. The wickedest man can’t steal a thing if you share it all with him. Think of the person you despise more than anyone in the world, and understand why they’ve done what they’ve done. At the time, they most likely believed their evil deed was for a good cause. And by that rite, there’s not a wicked man to ever walk this world. When you treat a villain like a guest, he acts like a guest.”
“Please excuse my Fergus, he used to deliver sermons at the church a lifetime ago,” Freya said.
“You’re a priest?” Hemlock asked with ignited curiosity. Fergus turned, his glasses chalky white in the candles.
“I was, a priest,” Fergus said, his body near invisible in the tunnel, except a pair of spectacles floating in the darkness. “Then I decided I actually wanted to help people, so I ditched the book and started peddling spirits. I answer to something much higher than law or religion—”
“It’s me,” Freya squawked.
“It’s called decency,” Fergus said, ignoring his wife, “and it’s rare as diamonds these days.”
June sat on the cot and looked across the room at Kensington. Wood panels creaked above her head as Hemlock climbed into the top bunk. She didn’t like the look of the men playing cards. And despite Kensington telling her that Pops had stayed nights on the very cot she slept on, she slept with her father’s boots laced tight so they wouldn’t be stolen off her feet.
“One more thing,” Fergus said. He’d come back. He held a shotgun against his shoulder. “Chester Hemlock isn’t welcome here.”