Trigger warning: This story contains abuse (physical and emotional), murder, and suicide attempts.
The cheerful conversation at dinner makes the succulent duck turn to dust in my mouth. Sarah talks about the village as if it’s the best place in the colonies. She says that everyone there was so kind after her mother died of the same fever that took Midwife Sasha. Edmund and Martha only encourage it, asking for news of her father and asking if there are any boys she has her eye on.
I stop listening and keep chewing the pasty duck. I probably have been working on this one bite for five minutes. I force myself to swallow and nibble at the beets. They taste like blood-soaked dirt. I never liked them anyway.
It’s almost as if I’ve disappeared from the one-room cabin entirely. Perhaps now would be a good time to leave, but I can’t leave without a thank you. Partially for the clothes, but mainly for not casting me out when my curse came to light.
I can’t help but think of Martha’s little sister. Why haven’t the townspeople killed me already? Yes, they are afraid my curse would be passed on to another, but why kill a child with a family willing to love and care for her and let a despicable young man born out of wedlock live? Why am I still here?
Martha insisted I stay until morning. She gave me a quilt and told me to sleep by the fire.
I can hear her and Sarah snoring softly from the cot. Edmund returned to the church, saying he had to work more on his sermon.
I have no reckoning of the time, but I figure it must be past midnight. The embers of the fire have long since darkened and no longer give off any heat. Every time I close my eyes, I can hear the crack of the musket and see Bowsell’s face as he died.
I sit up and wrap the quilt around my shoulders. If I can’t sleep, I might as well get started on my journey. They wouldn’t know I had left until the morning. I’ll leave the quilt on the table and hope Martha knows the depth of my gratitude.
And go where? Even if you get to Boston someone will know what you are. Your hands declare it for the world to know.
I shiver. I want to tell the voices that not everyone is like Mahala. Didn’t Martha welcome me in, even after my curse had been revealed? Didn’t Sarah leave little scraps of food on the woodpile behind the butchers every Sunday?
But think of all those who did nothing. Remember the boys who beat you and threw clods of mud at your clean clothes. That was before the fever, before you murdered Boswell. They knew who you were before you did.
I pull the quilt tighter around myself. Perhaps the voices are true. I’m worthless. No matter where I go they will follow me to my grave. There’s an invisible weight on my chest that makes it hard to breathe.
You are worthless. Anyone who tells you elsewise is an idiot.
But what about Sarah? She seems to genuinely care about me. I remember the day at the graveyard when she gave me the roll. That was the only kindness anyone showed me that day.
Anyone can act a part. Are you not pretending to be someone you are not? Admit it. You are a murderer. The world would be a better place without you.
“A better place without me?” I whisper. I don’t want to believe it, but I know it is true. Mahala reminded me of it daily. My stomach twists and I try not to retch.
I wipe my face on my sleeve. It comes away wet with silent tears. If I stay here, I’ll be putting Sarah in danger. Anywhere I go, my curse will follow. There is no escaping it.
Except through death.
The thought startles me like the slap of icy river water on my face. In my mind’s eye, I see Sarah instead of Boswell dying at my hand. How long will it be before I hurt someone else?
Slowly, haltingly, I get up and fold the quilt. I set it on the table and retrieve the knife Sarah used to cut the vegetables for dinner. The handle is cold in my fist as I head towards the door.
As I pull the door open, one of the forms on the cot moves.
“Jared?” Sarah props herself up on one elbow and rubs her eyes with her other hand. “What are you doing?”
I hide the knife behind my back. “Nothing.” I almost want her to stop me, to see the blade, to tell me there’s an escape from the guilty screams in my mind. I shove the thought away. I’d only hurt her if I live.
“Oh,” she says, still half-asleep.
I leave the cabin and softly shut the door behind me. The fresh snow illuminated by the bright full moon crunches beneath my boots as I go to the trees. The woods have always been my place of solitude and safety. It seems fitting to die here.
Yet as the blade hovers above my skin, something stays my hand.
Boswell’s voice echoes in my mind. “You’ll rot in the deepest pit of hell with the devil ‘imself.”
I don’t want to go to hell. There has to be a way out other than this.
I yell and fling the knife as far as I can. The blade sinks into the snow a few feet away, the handle upwards, taunting me.
I curl up on the ground and sob. I don’t try to be quiet. I want someone to hear, need someone to hear.
You are such a coward. Too afraid to even take your own life.
“Go away!” I scream. “Get out of my head!”
I am part of you. When you pulled the trigger, you chose me.
“No.” But this time my voice is barely above a whisper.
I clamp my hands over my ears, but Sarah’s voice is too real to block out. She touches my shoulder and I slowly open my eyes and look at her.
She kneels in the snow next to me and pulls my hands away. “Jared, are you alright?”
It’s such a stupid question even the voices in my head are quiet. I refuse to meet her eyes.
She doesn’t let go of my hands, my accursed, bloody hands. I try to pull away, but she stops me. “What happened?” She notices the knife and her eyes dart to my face.
“I killed him,” I say.
“You didn’t. Whatever happened wasn’t your fault. They use you as a scapegoat for everything.” She drops her gaze to her lap. She’s only wearing a shift with a shawl thrown over her shoulders. She takes a breath to say something else, but I interrupt.
“I did kill him. I pulled the trigger.” My breath puffs like the smoke from the musket. “Don’t tell me I didn’t. I know I did.”
Her head shoots up. “What?” Her grip loosens slightly on my hands and I jerk them away.
“I killed Boswell.” I thought saying it out loud would ease the guilty weight on my chest, but it only increases. “I shot him the night I ran away.”
“Why?” She looks scared. Scared of me? Why wouldn’t she be? I’m afraid of who I’ve become.
“I didn’t know it was loaded.” My heart is racing, a reminder that I’m still alive.
Sarah is crying. “I don’t know what to say.” She takes a deep breath and grips the edges of her shawl. Her gaze flits to the knife again, then back to my face. “What are you doing here?”
“No, not that. With the knife.”
I don’t answer.
She sniffs. “You were going to kill yourself, weren’t you?”
I still don’t answer, but I know I’m crying again.
“Jared, please tell me you weren’t going to kill yourself.”
“I was,” I whisper.
“I don’t want you to die,” she says.
“Why do you care?” I shout and stand up, snatching the knife from the snow. Sarah tries to grab my hand again and I yank it away. “Everyone else will be happy when I’m gone.”
She stumbles to her feet. I’m not sure if she’s shaking with cold or with fear as she reaches for me again. Her hand closes over the hilt of the knife. “Jared, wait…”
I don’t give her a chance to finish. I yank the knife away and she loses her balance, collapsing into the snow with a cry of pain.
She stares up at me with huge eyes, her breath panting in mist between her lips. Blood from a gash on her palm splatters the snow and her nightgown.
Red blood. Like Boswell’s blood. Like the stains on my hands.
The knife slips from my trembling fingers and I run.
I run until my legs give out and my breath comes in gasping pants. I collapse wherever I am. I’m only aware of the pounding my heart and the rhythm of the voices in my head.
When the warmth of the sun hits my cheek, I get up. I’m on a road, but the only footprints are my own. Exhaustion weighs on my limbs, but I force myself to move. If I keep moving, maybe I can leave the image of Sarah’s terrified face behind me.
The first person I pass is going the other way. They take one look at me and hurry on by. I don’t care. Honestly, I don’t really care about anything right now.
I keep following the road. Soon buildings rise out of the snow ahead of me. I stop, trying to rein in my thoughts.
The people here might know of me. Mahala probably sent out a notice when they didn’t find my body. This should scare me, but I’m too numb. I’m not sure if it’s the cold or the icy guilt in my chest that prevents me from feeling anything.
I hug my arms to my chest and keep walking. The waking village barely notices the scrawny boy trudging down their street. They don’t see my hands, know what I’ve done. To them, I’m just a weary traveler. If they knew the truth, their whispers would become shouts for my death.
There’s a small inn with a tavern attached to it across the street from me. There I can get warm and perhaps find the courage to turn myself in.
The darkened interior of the tavern and blazing heat of the fire are not welcoming. They push back at me, as if wanting me to remain on the street. No one acknowledges me besides the woman behind the bar. The place is shadowy enough to hide my birthmarked hands. But even the dark corners seem to recoil from me, though they surely kept darker secrets.
I order a pint of ale and simply stare at the frothing drink. When the door opens and a rush of cold air wraps around me, I look up. It’s Edmund, his black cloak dripping with snowflakes.
“Reverend,” says the woman behind the bar. “What a surprise.”
Edmund strides to the bar and leans on the counter, his back towards me. “I’m looking for a young man. He attacked my cousin last night.”
“Attacked darling Sarah?” Her voice holds shock, as if whoever would dare to do so should be damned simply for the thought. The words get the attention of the other patrons. A few eyes dart my way. “What does he look like?”
“About eighteen, lanky, black hair, angular face. He has scarlet birthmarks on his hands.”
“Do they look like splotches of blood?” Her eyes flicker in my direction and my heart stops.
“Aye.” Edmund follows her gaze and his face hardens. He storms over to me and yanks me up by my collar.
My elbow knocks over the ale and it spills onto both of us. A rush of adrenaline floods my veins and I try to pry his hands off my shirt, but he drags me out onto the street and to the side of the tavern. He slams me against the wall, still clutching my collar.
“Why did you try to hurt her? What did she ever do to you? She trusted you. She convinced me to trust you. What was I thinking letting a ragged stranger stay with my family unsupervised?” His eyes burn and a bit of spit lands on my face from the force of his words.
The rough brick digs into my back. I remain silent, knowing that protesting usually causes more pain. However, I didn’t expect this from a reverend. Hostility, yes. But not physical violence.
Apparently Edmund realizes this as well and releases my collar. He brushes his hands on the front of his shirt, looking uncomfortable. I notice a couple women across the street staring at us. After a minute they walk on and Edmund turns to me again. “She told me you killed a man.”
I cover my eyes with a hand, no longer caring if anyone sees the blood-stains. I’m thankful for the wall behind me because I sag against it.
“Did you?” Edmund asks.
I’m barely able to force myself to form the simplest of words. “Yes.” It comes as a hoarse whisper. Instead of feeling relieved by the confession, I feel crushed. The voices grow louder, echoing in my mind. Murderer. Monster. Cursed.
The numbness returns, the adrenaline fading as quickly as it came, as Edmund grabs my arm and pulls me down the street to the prison.
Tune in March 28 for the conclusion of Bloody Hands!