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“Thomas!” I yell as he runs from me. I hold up my skirt to avoid any mud puddles. He turns his head back and laughs. “Slow poke!” he taunts.
I hike up my skirts and sprint after him into the wood. As Thomas disappears behind a cluster of trees I stop to catch my breath. He’d promised me a surprise for my birthday. I don’t know why he insisted on giving it to me in the woods.
Once my breathing begins to return to normal I force my legs to move the last few feet. I find him in a clearing, leaning casually up against a tree.
His eyes graze over my sweaty forehead down to my muddy skirts. His mouth spreads into a wide grin.
“Watch it,” I warn.
He rolls his eyes and holds out his hand. “Come here,” is all he says.
I go to him and take his outstretched hand. “Close your eyes,” he whispers.
I oblige and feel him pulling me away, further, into the forest. We walk for a few feet more and then come to a stop.
“Okay,” he murmurs. “Open your eyes, Celeste.”
I obey and feel my mouth drop open. We’re deep in the forest and everything is surrounded by pine trees and wildflowers of all different shades. Sunshine hits everything at the perfect angle. It is the most beautiful thing I could’ve ever imagined.
“Do you like it?” he asks.
I nod in amazement.
I watch his face light up in the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen. He comes up behind me and whispers, “Happy sixteenth birthday.”
“How did you find this?” I murmur.
I feel his warm breath on my cheek as he says in a rush, “My brother and I used to play tag in the woods when we were little. I found it one day and . . .” His voice trails off as he remembers. “I’ve been coming here ever since— to think, mostly. It’s quiet; peaceful. I’ve never shown anyone this place before.”
I turn around to face him. “Why did you want to share it with me?”
He chuckles softly and gently takes my hands. “You’re very special to me, Celeste.”
I feel my cheeks heat up in a pink blush. “I-I am?” I stammer.
“Yes,” he says simply. Then, keeping his steady, blue-eyed gaze on me, he leans forward and presses his lips to mine. My eyes close involuntarily and I breathe in deeply.
All this time I’ve thought that these secret feelings I’ve harbored since day one had been one-sided. To me, I’ve always thought that I was merely Thomas’s childhood friend— that one day we’d eventually part our separate ways. He’d marry some faceless girl that would make the perfect wife: a wife to cook, clean, and bear children; a wife who would never question or speak her mind. I’m not any of those things. I can’t cook like my mother or sister. My version of cleaning is shoving everything under my bed. I’d like one or two children but could never handle ten; and I’m hardly what you’d call co-dependant.
I feel my lips slacken and my heart sinks down to my feet. I’m not the woman Thomas needs.
I pull back from the wonderful embrace and walk forward to sit on a tree stump. Thomas comes forward and sits in front of me.
“What’s wrong Celi?” He murmurs, calling me by my childhood nickname. “Please don’t cry, my love.”
“My love.” I muse. “Thomas . . .” I begin. “You don’t want me.”
“Celeste, what are—”
“I can’t cook. I don’t want dozens of kids. I’m not just going to sit there and say, ‘yes, dear’ all day, every day. I can’t give to you what you need. I—”
Thomas puts his hand over my mouth. “Stop, Celeste,” he says sternly. “Listen to me.” He purses his lips for a minute, thinking. “You are stubborn, loud, and can’t cook to save your life.”
I close my eyes in defeat.
“Look at me,” Thomas commands. I reluctantly open my teary eyes.
“You are all those things,” he says again. “But, you’re also kind, gentle, beautiful, and I’ve never seen a woman spit quite like you in my eighteen years.”
I can’t help letting out a small, muffled laugh from underneath his hand.
He smiles. “You’re charming and selfless. I love how you’re not afraid to speak your mind. I’d rather my wife be able to defend herself, instead of just sitting there like a meek little doe who’s scared to death of conversation. You’re everything I could ever ask for plus more. I love you, Celeste.”
I take his hand from my mouth. “So . . .” I wonder, my fears seeming to have evaporated into thin air. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying,” he starts. “I want you to be my wife, Celeste. Will you marry me?”
I smile. “You really want me to be your wife?”
I clear my throat. “Well, then, I’d hate to disappoint.”
“Is that a ‘yes’?” he asks.
I pretend to consider it for a minute, and then I throw myself against him, crushing my mouth to his. He wrestles me down onto the ground, so he’s on top of me. He leans forward and kisses my forehead. His lips make a light line of kisses down to my ear where he whispers: “That is definitely a ‘yes’,” and presses his lips to mine once more.
“Celeste, Celeste wake up.” My fourteen year-old sister, Julia, whispers in my ear.
“What?” I ask, annoyed.
“Julia, time for what?” I groan.
“Time for the sacrifices to be chosen!”
I bolt up into a sitting position. “What?” I glance out the window. “It’s nearly four in the morning.”
“Mayor Townsend just set off the whistle; you have to come now.” She takes my hand and drags me from my warm, soft bed, out into the chilly air.
“Mama and Papa are meeting us there.” Julia says as we scamper towards the clearing.
My slipper-clad feet keep sliding against the dew covered grass. I start shivering in my thin nightgown, not having time to slip on a robe.
Julia and I reach the middle of town square and merge into the clusters of tired men and women.
I turn to see Thomas coming towards me, and leave Julia to find our parents. His shirt is coming un-tucked and his black suspenders are hanging down at his sides from having dressed in haste. He runs a hand through his disheveled, straw-colored hair and yawns.
“Why are they holding this so early?” Thomas asks, rhetorically.
“I have no idea,” I murmur.
Every month these assemblies would be held. Our tiny town is in a state of overpopulation. There’s a shortage on food and water and it’s becoming harder and harder to get by. Ever since I was little we’ve had the Sacrifices. It’s not a pleasant thing, but it’s in the norm. We’ve all grown up with it. Most of the time the old or sick will volunteer, but, if not, than it is a fair draw for everyone sixteen and up.
Every month three people will be chosen, and this is the first year that my name will be in the draw.
Mayor Townsend calls everyone to silence. “Today we have two courageous volunteers. I will say on behalf of everyone how grateful we all are for your grand sacrifice.”
I can see that on either side of our mayor were a man and a woman: Andrew and Anita Baker. They are husband and wife and have been around for a while. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t consider them as old.
I suddenly feel Thomas’s arm tighten around me. I snap myself back to the present and listen to the rest of Mayor Townsend’s speech.
“—however, despite the sacrifice of this man and this woman, we are still in need of one other. So, we are going to have to draw at random.”
I watch as he reaches his hand into a colossal wooden barrel. He mixes his hand around before pulling one name out.
Everyone’s breath is held. Everyone’s mouths are shut. There is no noise at all. Mayor Townsend seems to move in slow motion as he reads the name to us.
I feel Thomas’s grip slacken around my waist in shock. My legs begin to shake. There has to be some mistake. I look up at Thomas. His face is ashen and his lips are white and trembling. He looks down at me with shining eyes.
He is the only one I concentrate on. I’m hardly aware of everyone else’s stares. The only pair of eyes I focus on are Thomas’s. I look straight into his gaze. I shake my head slowly back and forth. All I can think is no. No, no, no.
He closes his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose with his fore finger and thumb.
It is then that he shakes his head, yes.
It is then that I black out— for the name they’d called was mine.
“Celeste.” My father creaks open my bedroom door an inch. “Thomas is here.”
I look up from my bed. It has been almost twelve hours since the assembly. My mother is lying on my bed behind me, rubbing my back, and my sister is sitting beside me holding my hand.
I feel my mother smooth wisps of damp hair away from my forehead. She kisses my temple and then she and my sister follow my father out of the door.
After they’re gone Thomas creeps in and sits beside me on the bed. I turn around to face him. He wraps his arms around me and pulls me close.
I bury my face in his shoulder and cry. I cry harder than I’ve ever cried before. I don’t know how long it was until I was finally able to lift up my head.
“I’m so sorry.” I murmur, my voice distorted from the endless tears.
Thomas grabs my chin and forces me to look in his eyes. “Don’t, Celeste,” he says firmly. “Don’t you dare. This is not, in any world, your fault.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. Thomas lets me go and I collapse against my pillows in sudden exhaustion. “What do we do now?” I whisper.
Thomas lies down beside me and is silent for one agonizing second. “Get married,” he finally says, as if it’s the most obvious and rational solution he can come up with.
I feel my eyes pop open in astonishment. “Get . . . married? Now? Thomas, by midnight tomorrow night I’ll be . . . I’ll be . . . dead.” I manage to choke out.
I watch as he winces a bit on the word “dead.” His Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows, with apparent difficulty. “So?” he finally asks. “I still love you; and I still want you. Don’t you?”
“Of course!” I exclaim. “—but, you’ll only be my husband for a day. A day, Thomas.”
He looks at me. “And?”
I stare back at him, utterly perplexed. “And? You’ll be my husband for a day and then a widower the next! You really want to be a widower at eighteen?”
He pulls me against him so I’m almost squished against his chest. “No,” he whispers in my ear. “I don’t. But if a day is all we can have together . . . then that one day will be the very best of my life.”
I sigh heavily. I’ve known him long enough. Once he sets his mind on something, you won’t be able to sway him. But getting married? With only one day as husband and wife? It’s insane . . . but it feels so right.
“You’re sure?” I murmur.
“I am completely sure of you.” He says, his voice filled with intensity.
I shake my head against his chest. “Alright then,” I whisper. “Marry me.”
“You’re sure you want to do this?” Mayor Townsend asks, once we’ve explained the situation.
“Yes.” Thomas and I say simultaneously.
He purses his lips, but then slowly nods. “Okay.”
The informal ceremony passes in a blur for me. There were multiple times when I just wanted to bolt from the hall. This wasn’t fair to Thomas. It wasn’t fair to his family or mine. But I couldn’t help feeling a little selfish. I loved Thomas, and I wanted to be with him, just for one night.
I’m snapped back to the present as Mayor Townsend says, “You may now kiss the bride.”
I feel Thomas’s soft, lush lips on mine. It’s a quick kiss, but it’s filled with so much desire and passion.
When everything’s finally over my parents and sister catch me in their arms. I see silent tears running down their cheeks. I look over and see Thomas murmuring something to his parents.
“What’s the matter?” I ask them.
Thomas slowly raises his head. “Nothing,” he tries to say nonchalantly, but I can hear an edge to his voice. When he sees I’m not going to let it go, he comes over and cups my face in his hands. He presses his lips lightly to my forehead. “Everything is fine, Celeste.”
I nod, still not sure if I should believe him or not, but unwilling to argue.
“You go on ahead. I’ll catch up, okay?”
I look back to see our parents waiting patiently for us at the door. “Where are you going?”
He strokes my cheek gently. “I’m not going anywhere. Mayor Townsend just wanted to speak with me before we left.”
I shrug, barely hiding a pout. Thomas chuckles softly and gives my hand a squeeze. I turn toward our parents and bring up the rear as we walk out into the chilly air.
My family hugs me and leaves me with Thomas’s parents. We’re staying at his house tonight and they’d graciously arranged to stay with Thomas’s older brother, Bennet and his wife.
Thomas’s mother, Anna, puts her arm around me, squeezing my shoulders in a tight hug. “Thomas has waited for you for such a long time.” She murmurs. “He really loves you.”
I feel my eyes prick with sudden tears. “I love him, too.”
She rubs my back in a pleasant circular motion. “I know you do.”
It isn’t long before Thomas comes out to meet us. He replaces his mother with his arm around my shoulders.
“Thank you.” He murmurs to his parents. Then we depart, and walk the short distance to Thomas’s house.
As we approach the threshold Thomas abruptly comes to a halt. He reaches down and pulls me up into his arms.
“Thomas!” I squeal. “Put me down!”
He smiles widely. “It’s bad luck to mess with tradition, Mrs. Walker.”
I roll my eyes as he carries me all the way to his bedroom. He lays me down ever so gently upon the plush bed.
Then, he steps back and unbuttons the first three buttons of his white shirt. I feel my heart sputter and then break off into a sprint inside my chest. I watch as he hesitates with the fourth, wanting to make sure this was okay. I take a deep breath and sit up on my knees. I pull him close and press my mouth to his. Then I pull back and get the rest of his buttons for him.
It is dark when I wake. I smile to myself. We’d slept the day away. With that pleasure comes a feeling of dread. What time is it? Thomas said he’d wake me up when it was time to go.
I roll over and feel for him. My heart clenches as my hands merely meet cold sheets. I bolt upright and feel all of the blood rush from my head. Once the wave of dizziness passes, I glance down and see a thin piece of paper folded in half on Thomas’s pillow. With a shaky hand I reach out and pick the slip of paper up. I swallow hard and open it. It reads:
I am so sorry. I have to do it. I couldn’t live with myself if I just sat by and let you go through with this. I’ll miss you. I love you so much. I always have and I always will. Be safe.
Tears pool in my eyes, but I smear them away and force myself to read the last few words.
I read through the note three more times. It subconsciously crumples in my hand and falls silently to the floor.
Without thinking, I flip the covers over and stumble out of bed. I throw on what I’d been wearing yesterday and bolt out of the door.
“Thomas!” I scream, even though I know he’s miles away. I stumble as my bare foot steps down on a sharp piece of rock. My ankle twists and I’m sent, flailing helplessly, to the ground.
I push myself back to my feet anyway. I wince as a stab of pain shoots up my ankle. I continue hobbling along anyway. I try to regain speed despite the throbbing of my injured ankle.
Finally, I miraculously look up to see the giant, looming contraption becoming clearer and clearer in the distance.
“Thomas!” I shriek.
I don’t have to squint anymore to see the gallows. I can see that Andrew Baker, Anita Baker, and . . . Thomas, are already set up, the nooses hanging around their necks.
“NO!” I bellow. If he hears me, he doesn’t show it. “Please!” I try again. Still no reaction.
I look over and see Mayor Townsend’s hand on the bar supporting their feet. As soon as he drops it their necks will be snapped . . . Thomas will be gone.
“Thomas!” I shout . . . just as the bar is dropped. My eyesight goes blurry. The vision of Thomas swinging, looking completely at peace, is the last thing I see before everything else dissolves away.