Dirty Faces

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Chapter 27: Changed

Susan stumbled backward, barely able to stay upright on her trembling legs. She hadn't expected the gun to kick back; she hadn't expected it to go off at all when she knocked the intruder upside the head with the butt of that shotgun. It was all such a blur; she wasn't sure if she'd taken the safety off or not before deciding to use the firearm as a club. Steadying herself, she laid it on the foot of the bed, stepped over the unconscious man in the floor, and rushed to Addie's side.

She untied the bandanna and immediately Addie wailed and sobbed uncontrollably. Susan sat down and wrapped her tightly in her arms, rocking side to side. "Shhh. It's alright, now. Sissy's here. Ain't nobody going to hurt my Addie. Shhh. It's all going to be OK," she soothed as best she could, in between her own sobs. At the back of her mind was always the thought of the Stranger coming to, and she kept the shotgun in arm's reach for when that time came.

As she rocked Addie and stroked her messy hair, she looked down at the figure in the floor. There was nothing uncommon about the way he looked, and he was neither a small man nor was he particularly large. She couldn't place the face at all and was quite sure she'd never seen him before.

Suddenly, Susan heard the back door fly open. Letting go of Addie, she leaped to her feet and grabbed the gun. She threw it up to her shoulder just as the Priest appeared in the doorway. His hands shot out in front of him defensively. "It's me! It's just me," he said, panting. Susan breathed a sigh of relief and lowered the gun.

"I've heard shots all night, but when I heard one come from over here...I knew it was just you two girls here, so I..." his voice trailed off as he surveyed the room, his eyes coming to rest on Susan's. They didn't exchange any words, but she felt as though he understood everything that had happened in the brief seconds their eyes were locked.

He swallowed hard, then said calmly, "Go tend to your baby. I'll stay with Mary Adele."

It wasn't until that moment that Susan realized Kody was screaming and crying alone upstairs, and had surely been doing so since the gun went off. In the haze that was the past few minutes she'd completely forgotten about him; she was a terrible mother. Though she wasn't comfortable leaving Addie alone with a man at this of all times, intuition told her she would be leaving her in safe hands. She nodded to the Priest, laid the gun back down, and hurried to get upstairs.

Susan flew back to Addie's room and when she got there, thanked the Lord that her baby was fine, aside from being frightened by the loud gunshot. He was beet red and already his cry was growing hoarse. Susan felt like she couldn't get him in her arms fast enough, and when she did, set right to humming and speaking with the same reassuring tone she'd used with Addie a few minutes earlier.

She didn't dare go back downstairs with a squalling baby for fear it would scare Addie even more, so she sat down on the bed and rocked him. As she hummed the tune to some little jingle David had been singing lately, she counted her baby's fingers and toes, and her lips curved up into a smile when she concluded there were still ten of each. It didn't take long to quiet him, and within a few minutes she was making her way back downstairs.

Susan continued humming the odd little melody as she walked back through the house, more to calm her own mind than to soothe Kody. She was really only beginning to wrap her mind around what had come to pass, and now she wasn't really sure if she was thinking with her head, or her heart, or her gut. The thought of getting the law involved finally crossed her mind, but she doubted it was in her or Addie's best interest.

The Stranger would get away with everything. A statement from Addie was highly unlikely, and he could easily just say she let him in the house - because she probably did- and that Susan knocked him out cold for no apparent reason. And then he could press charges against Susan. The very thought turned her stomach.

Surprised the Priest hadn't brought Addie into the front room or the dining room, or anywhere, for that matter, that there wasn't a strange, unconscious man in the floor, she returned to the wretched bedroom that had once been hers.

Addie sat on the bed, her arms wrapped around her knees; her face was still red and tear-stained, but the sobbing had stopped. Next to the bed, the Stranger lay face-up in the floor, and kneeling beside him was a most appalling sight: the Priest's head was inclined, his eyes closed, and his lips were moving in prayer. Initially, Susan had to bite her tongue; how dare he pray for that monster? But she reminded herself that those people did things differently, things that didn't make much sense. And then the good Christian in her reminded her that if ever a soul needed prayer, it was that one lying in her bedroom floor.

When the Priest's lips stopped moving, he opened his eyes and looked up at Addie, then at Susan. His light eyes looked concerned. Susan cleared her throat. "You certainly have a way with Addie. Nobody's able to calm her down that fast when she's so worked up."

A weak smile appeared on the Priest's face, and when he looked to Addie again, she sniffled and a little smile appeared on her face as well. "Let's go to the front room, shall we?" he suggested.

Susan glanced quickly at the figure in the floor and nodded. "Yes. Come on, Addie, I'm going to run you a nice, warm bath."

Addie made no attempt to move, so the Priest carried her into the front room and sat with her and the baby while Susan fetched Addie's nightgown and prepared the tub. Then, he held the baby and prayed silently while Susan helped Addie get cleaned up. When the two girls returned, Addie sat down beside him and Susan remained standing, rubbing her eyes. "Would you like some coffee?" she asked, her voice tired. "I get the feeling this is going to be a long night."

The Priest nodded and Susan turned to head to the kitchen. As she prepared the percolator, she suddenly remembered that the gun was still in the room with the Stranger! She silently cracked the bedroom door and slipped through to retrieve it. Looking up at the bullet hole in the ceiling, she was once more grateful that Kody had been on the other side of the house when the gun went off. The Stranger didn't stir and he hadn't moved an inch in the time that they'd been out of the bedroom. I must've whopped him good, she thought, spitting on him as she walked back into the kitchen.

A moment later, she returned to the front room to find the Priest with a sleeping baby in one arm and the other wrapped around Addie's shoulder. Her head lay on his chest and Susan could tell by her eyes, gazing sleepily into the fire, that it wouldn't be long before Addie was asleep, too. She took Kody from him and sat down in one of the wingback chairs. They sat in silence, listening to the fire, the celebratory gun shots outside, and the faint bubbling sound of the coffee perking in the kitchen.

By the time the aroma of fresh coffee drifted into the front room, Addie was fast asleep. The Priest slid his arm from around her shoulder, stood, laid her down on the couch, and walked over to the fireplace. He took the poker from the fireplace tool set, squatted, and stirred the low-burning fire. "How about a cup of that coffee?" he said, staring into the flames.

Susan's mind had been on everything but the coffee and she'd already forgotten all about it. "Er, yes. Smells like it's done." She stood up and laid Kody in the chair, then led the Priest to the dining room. He seated himself at the table, among Addie's crayons and drawings. Susan poured two cups of steaming black coffee and joined him a moment later. "Thank you," he said.

"A good neighbor's worth a lot more than a cup of coffee," she replied.

He forced a smile, then looked down. "That man in there, he was my boarder."

She pursed her lips and nodded, then looked down at the pictures of smiling sunshines and brightly colored flowers and stick people, and her heart broke again for Addie. One of the boarders. Susan wondered if her sister would ever trust like she had before, now that her innocence had been so cruely snatched away. Addie had thought he was her friend, and all she would ever understand about what had happened was that he had hurt her.

Susan took a sip of the bitter coffee, still staring at Addie's artwork, and said, "He sure has been out for a while. Reckon he ought to be coming around soon?"

When the Priest didn't say anything, she looked up to meet concern and something like sympathy in his icy blue eyes. "I said, 'Reckon he ought to be coming around soon?'" she repeated.

The Priest took a deep breath, then hesitated. "Susan, where you hit that man..." He hesitated again, searching for the words. "Even if there were a hospital closer than fifty miles from here, he wouldn't make it through the night. He won't be waking up."

Susan swallowed hard. "You mean...he's in a coma?"

It was definitely sympathy in his eyes when the Priest solemnly shook his head 'no'.

In that instant, the smell of fresh coffee she so loved became the most nauseating odor she'd ever smelled. She felt flushed as she threw her chair back and ran out the back door, where she lost her supper beside the steps. For the first time all night, she was grateful for the cold. It at least relieved the flushing sensation, but there was nothing that could take away the sick, gnawing feeling that overwhelmed her.

She sat down on the steps and leaned against the handrail support, crying and sobbing hysterically. How could that even be? She wasn't very strong, and there was more of Addie's blood on the linens than what little had trickled out of the Stranger's ear. She shut her eyes tight and thought of what would become of his family. Maybe he had a wife and babies to provide for, maybe his mama was still around.

And what would become of her family? The only witness was Addie, and there was no telling what, if anything, she would say when questioned. And there was no way she would let anyone put Addie on the stand and ask her about that night, make her relive it, in front of a court of law. So Susan would go to prison. She was only seventeen years old, and if she was fortunate enough to be spared the death penalty, she would spend a very long time behind bars. No matter what the sentence, her baby would grow up without a mother. And bless his heart, David still hadn't even figured out how to pin the diaper in place the right way.

She didn't know if she could live with herself; she was forever changed. There was a blight on her very soul that would never go away. It was the cruelest of ironies that she had so recently brought a life into the world, and now she had taken one out of it.

The hinges on the screen door squeaked behind her, spilling light and warmth out through the opened crack. "Come inside, child," came the gentle voice of the Priest. "It's too cold for you to be out here. You have a baby to care for and we can't have you getting sick."

Susan opened her eyes again and wiped away the tears blurring her vision. Steadying herself on the handrail, she stood and slowly turned to go back inside. The Priest was right; she had a baby to care for. For now, at least.

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