I waltz through the property, but I can’t escape the guards. They follow me wherever I go and don’t give me a second to breathe.
I spin on my heels. “Leave me alone!” I yell at them.
They don’t even seem to notice, let alone act.
When I continue walking, they do too.
How long will this go on? How much further will Noah go to keep me under his thumb?
He dragged me away from my mother when I’d finally found her. I tried so hard to speak with her, and now I can’t. Whenever I try to get close to her room, the guards block my path.
“Get out of my way,” I hiss at them.
“We cannot,” one of them replies. “Patriarch’s orders.”
“Well, I’m his wife, and I command you to step aside,” I growl.
“Patriarch’s orders are above those of a matriarch,” he replies.
I grunt out loud and march in the opposite direction, furious at this constant stalking. I’m not a child who needs to be kept from dangerous things. I don’t need to be contained to my room. I don’t need anything except peace of mind and freedom.
What I wouldn’t give for the latter …
But Noah is dead set on keeping me here, and it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll ever budge. I should’ve never assumed that I could worm my way into his heart and make him do the right thing. He’ll never give me what I want because I’m part of his “plan,” whatever that means. He says I’m so important, yet he won’t share any information. What am I supposed to do with that? Sit back and let it all happen?
Annoyed, I go back to my room and slam the door shut in the guards’ faces. I pound on it again with my fist for good measures and hopefully to scare them just a little bit. I don’t have any power, but at least I can do that.
I go to the barred window and look outside. There are far more guards out there than usual, probably because of me and my mother escaping the temple. Two matriarchs fleeing the Holy Land? That’ll surely put a dent in people’s faiths, which I’m sure the patriarchs would like to avoid at all cost. They’ll nip any resistance in the bud within a second.
Which is why I’m so confused about what Noah’s doing. Why would he get me out of here only to bring me back in when I’m much older? Why would anyone go through that trouble? Unless he changed his mind about letting me go …
But why? Is it because of my father, the president?
Just thinking about him as my father makes me cringe and shiver.
The president … the most powerful man in this community … created me.
The same man who rules this monstrous place.
I refuse to acknowledge it.
Even if it’s true, I’ll never once call him my father.
Does he even know? Does he know I’m his daughter, or did Noah not tell him? Did he know my mother and Noah schemed together to get me out? Probably not.
No wonder Noah wanted to keep me and my mother separated.
I sit down on my bed and take a few seconds to breathe. My lungs feel constricted, and my heart is racing from all the information swirling in my head. It’s all becoming a bit too much.
Standing up, I take off my dress and tear off my bra and anything left between, chucking it all into the corner of the room. Naked, I stand in front of the mirror and look at my body and at the scar that rests near my belly. My hand glides over the not so smooth skin, and it erupts into goose bumps. To think this scar was the result of love … and that it wounded me so much. Not just my body but my soul too. And now a man wants to claim my body as though it could do all of that all over again?
No way. I feel sick. So sick that I run to the toilet and throw myself down just in time before I hurl. After I’ve flushed, I wash my mouth and hands in the sink and stare at the woman in the mirror. I thought I knew that woman, but the longer I look, the more I feel a stranger is staring back at me.
My body tenses and cramps up, and I hold my belly as I sit down on the toilet and wait until it passes. I feel as though someone’s trying to rip into me, and I feel so dizzy all of the sudden. What’s happening to me?
I open the tiny wall closet, hoping to find medicine, but there’s only one bottle of painkillers, and it contains a single pill. Lucky me. I pop it and swallow it down without water. But something else in that closet catches my eye, and I can’t tear them away.
A pregnancy test.
I swallow again and contemplate closing the door and pretending I never saw it, but I did. And a part of me wonders …
I grab it, pull it out of the box, and take off the plastic. Then I sit down on the toilet and look at it for a few seconds. Oh, what the heck. It’s not as if I’ll lose anything from not knowing.
Besides, my panties were already ripped off while I was in the grass, so I’m already halfway there.
With spread legs, I push the stick underneath and pee on it.
Then the waiting begins.
I bite my lips as I tightly clutch the stick.
How long does it take? Seconds? Minutes?
Time is ticking, and so is my heart because the last time I did this, I wasn’t prepared … but now, I’m even more unprepared.
Because when that stick turns bright blue … two lines … my heart sinks into my shoes.
No, no, no, no!
I can’t be … pregnant?
Then it dawns on me … that time with Noah in the Jacuzzi.
The stick drops from my hands, and I immediately run out of the bathroom and shut the door behind me, staring at the wood as if the devil himself is behind those walls.
“Natalie? I know you’re in there. We need to talk,” he says.
“Wait,” I mutter as I hastily put on a new outfit. All they have in the closet are dresses, so I have to make do with a black flowery one.
“I’m coming in,” Noah says.
The door opens before I have a chance to answer, and I’ve only just zipped up my dress. The guards have gone, and I assume Noah told them to leave. Typical.
Still, I’m quaking on my feet when I come face to face with the man who is supposed to be my husband … and now the father of my child too.
No, I can’t think like that. Maybe that stick showed something in error. That happens, right?
“I—” He’s already opened his mouth and was about to say something, but then he stops. “You look beautiful.”
The sheer honesty in the way he says it brings a flush to my cheeks.
I shouldn’t let him get to me like that, but it’s hard in a place like this … And with a man who can so easily spin my heart around his finger.
But I can’t allow him to just wriggle his way back in.
“Look, I wanted to apologize for—”
“Don’t,” I interject, raising my finger. No matter how good the apologies sound, they’re void if he doesn’t mean it. “You’re not sorry for what you did; you’re mad I managed to escape and that you got caught in a lie.”
“I didn’t want it to be like this. I don’t want to hurt you,” he says. “I only wanted to protect you.”
“By keeping me away from my mother?” I hiss.
His face turns dark. “I did it for your own good.”
Always the lies … so many lies …
I push the tears back. “No, you did it so I wouldn’t talk to my father about your dirty plans.”
Noah’s eyes suddenly widen, and I know I have him.
“He doesn’t know I’m his daughter, does he?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer, which is all I need to know the truth.
“I knew it,” I growl, and I immediately barge at him.
He grabs my arm. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Let me go. I’m the president’s daughter,” I say through gritted teeth.
“You’re forgetting you’re also my wife now. A patriarch stands above all, including matriarchs and daughters of presidents,” he quips. “And do you honestly think he’ll listen to you? You’re mistaken if you think he’s a kind man.”
I’m fuming, and I don’t believe a word he says. “I don’t care. It’s worth trying.”
“You’re just doing this to try to hurt me,” he says. “I know I’ve caused you a lot of pain, but doing this won’t make it any better, Natalie, and you know that. Revenge is never an answer to solve your problems.”
“It’s a start,” I spit back.
Suddenly, a large explosion rocks me to my core, and I duck, and so does Noah.
“What was that?” I yell.
“I don’t know,” he says, which makes it even scarier.
How does he, a patriarch, not know what’s going on in his own community? They set the rules, they govern, they punish … which means if he doesn’t know, someone’s gone rogue.
Noah helps me up from the floor, and asks, “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I reply, even though I’m still mad at him.
“Stay here,” he says, and he immediately runs out the door.
I rush out toward the staircase and peer over the banisters. All the guards and even the regular helpers around the house are scattering and running around, most of them heading for the door with what looks like buckets and hoses. What the heck is going on out there?
I tiptoe down the stairs to have a closer look. I know he told me to stay in my room, but I can’t help it … I’ve always been a rule breaker.
The front door is wide open with no one in sight. Should I take the chance?
Clutching the doorframe, I gaze outside. Out in the distance, there’s a hut … or what remains of it. It’s completely in shambles, and a fire’s destroying the wooden rubble as well as the grass surrounding it.
“Oh my …”
I can’t even finish my sentence as I witness the onslaught down below. Several huts are on fire, and it’s spreading so quickly there’s no stopping it. The people are gathering around the fires, throwing buckets filled with water from the wells, but it’s like throwing a glass of water into a giant burning pile. They have hoses, but even those can’t fill up quickly enough to fight the fires.
Another explosion follows. I duck again and cover myself as debris flies everywhere across the community grounds.
That’s when I spot her … the woman huddled in a corner of one of the burning huts …
“Mom, no!” I yell, but it falls on deaf ears. “Someone save her!”
There’s no one around, so I run down the steps onto the pavement and across the grass.
But then her eyes home in on mine, and the dark, blank stare she sends in my direction is chilling to the bone. She rigidly shakes her head at me. At first, I think I’m seeing things again, that what’s happening isn’t real, but it is. I know it is because people swarm all around the buildings in an effort to save them … and to stop the fires she started.
A single look is all it takes to tell the truth.
Just one look … and I know she did this.
She mouths two words. “Go. Now.”
My breath catches in my throat as my lips part and tears fill my eyes.
I want to shake my head at her, scream, run to her, save her from the fire all by myself, even if it kills me, but a strongly non-worded, “No,” from her mouth as she shakes her head stops me from doing just that.
My lips rub together as I struggle to keep the tears at bay. And then she smiles. It’s a simple smile, but a smile that could light a thousand hearts.
I give her back the best smile I could ever muster.
And then I run.