My husband is dead…my husband is dead…my husband is dead. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Rowena reread the breaking news banner scrolling across her phone. Her brain refused to accept such a reality in the predawn light. In another time and place, she’d have wept with sorrow but today it was joy, and a little fear, that sent tears streaking down her cheeks.
Rubbing her swollen belly, Rowena forced her phone to play music, despite her desire to listen to news. As the music flowed through her, she tried to calm her heart. Groaning as a foot pressed against her rib cage, she smiled before frowning. Attempting to take a deep breath only made her son press on her bladder. She needed to determine her next move. If the news hadn’t been so upsetting, she might’ve laughed as she rushed for the bathroom.
Stepping into the living room Rowena hesitated for a moment but finally broke down, turning on the small television. Folding her arms as a young reporter, dressed in a rumbled suit, discussed Duncan Garcia’s demise. He bounced from left to right, his eyes shining with excitement. She shouldn’t begrudge the young man the chance to further his career, but she couldn’t stop glaring at him.
What gave him the right to speak with such authority? Despite Duncan’s public antics over the last few months, very few people knew the leader of the Oracle of God. Even as one of his wives, she’d never claimed to know his mind. Yet, reporters, federal agents, and so-called “cult experts,” spoke with haughty conviction.
Shaking her head, Rowena reached for the remote. She’d left that life almost a decade ago and she didn’t need it now! Her hand paused as a rusted van pulled into the shot and women, dressed in black streamed towards the cameras. Refusing to acknowledge the outside world, they sat in a semicircle, bowing their heads. Rowena’s stomach turned as microphones swarmed the mourning women. How dare the council let the wives be treated this way!
Her son twisted against her ribs interrupting Rowena’s anger. She couldn’t help her former sisters, but she left the drama floating in the background, as she followed her morning routine. An hour past and the sun scorched the women’s slim backs. Had they been fasting for Duncan’s safety? How long had they been sent to provide a spectacle?
Raising a cup of coffee to her lips, she frowned at her shaking hands. The sweetened liquid glided over her tongue, providing no real relief. Decaf sucked, but she smiled as she gently rubbed the bulge forcing his way through her ancient t-shirt. “I hope you know how much I love you,” she cooed, forcing her eyes away from the television.
Tires squealed on the drive and Rowena mentally prepared herself to act normal. “Did you see the news?” Rowena’s husband, called as he came through the garage. She cringed before muting the TV.
Amos kissed her cheek, playfully rubbing her belly before pointing to the screen. “Shot himself rather than risk arrest. Guess he figured the feds were unlikely to treat him kindly.” Pouring a cup of coffee, he pulled her to the kitchen table. “Sit with me before I have to head back.”
Squeezing his hand, Rowena raised an eyebrow, “not that I don’t love seeing you, but I thought you wouldn’t be home until after lunchtime.”
Amos shrugged and nodded towards the television, “not much work going on at the station. Even the local drunks are holed up in the bar watching this stuff. Not every day a cult leader shoots himself on national television.” The blood drained from Rowena’s head, gripping the table, she stared at the man dressed in tan in front of her, for a moment seeing the cop, rather than the lover.
“Honey, honey.” Soft hands covered her cheeks and kissed away her tears. “I’m sorry. I thought you knew. I didn’t realize. I have such a stupid mouth sometimes.” Coffee, Old Spice and gun oil filled her nose as Amos pressed her to his shoulder. He always smelled of home.
Shaking her head, she offered a wilted smile. “Must have happened before I woke up. It’s just the baby playing with my hormones.” Amos gripped her shoulders tightly before stepping away to refill his mug.
“You don’t have to suffer decaf with me,” she stated as they moved towards the living room.
The corners of his dark brown eyes crinkled as he winked at her. It was those eyes, full of love and honesty that had made her start to trust the outside world. “A minor sacrifice for my bride.” Placing a light peck against her cheek, he unmuted the TV while shaking his head. “No doubt some of his followers are praying for the man’s resurrection, despite his crimes.”
Like most of the country, Amos had been captivated by the Oracle of God’s leader, Duncan Garcia. His rise to power over a few hundred followers in the New Mexico desert, his small tribe of dutiful wives and the abuse allegations that led the authorities to the compound’s door last month had dominated every news station. She couldn’t fight the shutter moving through her and Amos immediately shifted his focus.
“Are you alright sweetheart?” Amos rubbed her lower back and smiled as she let out a low groan of pleasure. His hand raised to turn off the television but Rowena grabbed the controller, laying it aside.
“Yes, of course,” she answered. His beard stubble tickled her chin as she placed a chaste kiss to his cheek. What was one more white lie in the web of deceit she had spun over the last five years?
Until Duncan forced himself on the world, she’d been able to pretend she had no past. Rowena had kept to herself when she’d first arrived in Wyoming, carrying a single suitcase and a new name. She’d spoken no word of her past, since the night she fled Duncan’s compound. That life had been buried the chilly night she’d left a note and walked into the desert, not caring if a coyote got to her before she reached civilization.
Cheyenne had been big enough to get lost in, but less overwhelming than any of the other cities she’d briefly wandered through. After spending most of her life in the desert, she loved the changing seasons, the wide open fields. Still, it was the habit of her neighbors to be friendly without asking too many questions that eventually made her feel comfortable enough to lay down tentative roots. Something she’d rarely questioned before this saga began.
Kissing her softly Amos brought her back to reality, “I didn’t mean to upset you.” Worry tinted his face but he didn’t press her.
“You didn’t!” Her false enthusiasm didn’t faze him but he let it slide, like he let so many things slide.
Pulling her into his arms, she laughed as her large belly protruded between them. “How long has it been since I was able to lay my head comfortably against your shoulder without the little man kicking you?”
“Feels like forever and yesterday,” Amos quipped as he rocked her slowly. Pulling away, he held her hands smirking, “hey you – want to spend the rest of your life with me?” He smiled before twirling her in a small circle.
“Always,” she replied, as she did whenever he asked. This had been their little game, since he’d found her packing a suitcase late one night. She’d already stayed more than three months past her usual time in a new place. Amos hadn’t asked what she was doing. He’d sat on her bed and placed a small ring box on top of the case, vowing to run with her, if she wanted him.
Watching the faint hint of doubt chase across his eyes before he kissed her fingers, she felt a pang of guilt that he still didn’t know her story, or her name. Smiling she squeezed his fingers, “I will see you at dinner. Promise.”
“You run, we run.” Amos stuck out his pinky finger and she hooked her own through his, repeating the pledge.
Rowena waited until she heard his car pull out of the driveway before returning her attention to drama playing out on the screen. The wives still sat in a circle praying, the red news banner beneath stating “the wives of Duncan Garcia.” There were a few new, painfully young faces, but she focused on her two old friends. Elizabeth’s face was streaked with tears but Sarah held herself with quiet dignity as they prayed.
The back of Sarah’s neck was sunburned and Rowena thought the ghost of a bruise hovered on her cheek. She’d always been more outspoken than was safe. As she watched, one of the reporters stepped behind Sarah, opening an umbrella to break the sun harsh rays. Tears filled Rowena’s eyes at the simple gesture.
Althea, Duncan’s first wife, glanced at the reporter briefly before bowing her head once more. Rowena bowed her own head and said a quick prayer for Sarah and Elizabeth’s safety. Mentally chastising herself, she added in the names of each of the women who’d served the man they’d been forced to call husband, even the bitter Althea.
Once that had been her place, praying quietly with her sisters. She’d sat between Sarah and Elizabeth on their wedding day and in every prayer circle. When they’d been children they’d played games, made up stories, and even made youthful promises to marry on the same day. Sarah had been the only one brave enough to voice that irony the day Duncan had mandated they be consecrated to the prophet.
She should turn the television off, but it had been eight years since she’d viewed her friends. Despite the aching memories, she sat by the television and mentally painted her friends’ faces, noting each new line, gray hair and forgotten freckle. She’d never missed her parents or the prophet who’d controlled her life from birth until the day she’d turned nineteen, but she regretted leaving her friends behind.
“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth’s head turned and for a moment Rowena pretended she’d heard her across time and distance.
A black van pulled up, it newness in stark contrast to the beat up monstrosity that had delivered the women. Rowena wanted to scream as they rose in unison, refusing the reporters’ final questions. Her heart broke as each of the twelve climbed inside.
The man holding the door removed his glasses and stared at the reporters. Rowena’s heart leapt with love as he pursed his lips and grinned at the assembled crowd. Lucius Grey had risen far since she’d last seen him. She hoped he hadn’t had to step on too many people to achieve his goals.
Her brother strode with purpose towards the microphones and stated “Duncan was…is our leader.” Rowena cringed, wondering how much that subtle slip would cost him with the council. Perhaps he should have climbed into the van without making a play for glory.
Coughing slightly Lucius started again, his eyes shifting slightly to the side. He wasn’t giving an authorized speech, Rowena shook her head at his stupidity. “Duncan prepared us for his unfortunate demise.” Many reporters shouted questions but Lucius held his hand up and continued as though no one had interrupted, “He also prophesied his rebirth through the off-spring of his thirteenth wife.”
Her brother smiled pleasantly for the television and rubbed his thumb down his cheek. It had been their signal when they were younger that father or one of the other elders was angry. A cold chill spun down Rowena’s spine as she leaned away from the television. A reporter stepped into her brother’s path as he tried to move towards the van. “Duncan Garcia always stated he had twelve wives.”
Lucius nodded as he continued, “one left our fold but we know her location. She will bear our new prophet. The Council has a special celebration planned for her return.” Turning, Lucius once more drug his thumb across his cheek as he ignored the reporter’s final questions. Dust kicked up clouds, covering the reporters’ clothes as they chased the van for a moment before turning back to their respective cameras to recap the story.
The hard floor greeted her as Rowena’s legs gave way beneath her. Her breath came in short bursts as she tried to pretend Lucius warning had been meant for someone else. Before her marriage, they’d been close. She’d hated his willingness to march her towards her doom, not truly comprehending that it was his way of spending a few more minutes with her. After becoming one of the chosen twelve, Duncan had kept his wives from any family members, or anyone else who might render them aid.
Swallowing, Rowena pulled herself from the floor. She’d run before, and despite her promises to Amos, she’d never disposed of the new identity she’d procured five years before. Should she call him? He’d promised to run with her, but his sister and mother were here, as was his job.
Tears streamed down her cheeks but it was anger that Duncan had forced her to make yet another rash choice that compelled her to the attic. Lucius was still in New Mexico but that didn’t mean the individuals Duncan had dispatched to collect her were far. She needed to leave today.
“Letitia?” The deep voice at the bottom of the stairs calling her given name made her freeze. “Letitia, please come down. I saw Lucius’ statements. I swear, I’m not going to hurt you.”
Amos stood at the base of the stairs; his eyes filled with tears. “You promised, sweetheart. You run, we run. I can protect you, I swear it, now please come down the stairs.”
“How long have you known?”
Hurt warred with hope as he offered her a weak smile. “Two weeks after I met you. I knew you were running from something. Also knew I loved you, but I needed to be sure you weren’t a fugitive. I ran your fingerprints and came up with your missing person report.” Cupping her cheek, he stared into her eyes, “hey you – want to spend the rest of your life with me?”
Stepping into his arms, Letitia sobbed. “Our marriage isn’t legal.”
Amos let out a soft chuckle, “Oh baby, the man that married us was one of my buddies. The paper you signed was no more real than your name. Figured it would be easier to have new ceremony when you finally told me the truth than try to explain why you committed fraud.”
“My brother was warning me Amos. They know where we are.”
Laying his head against her hair, Amos said, “I've had deputies on surveillance since the siege began. The FBI joined the monitoring party a few days ago. No one's getting to you or our son."
Relief warred with confusion as Amos lifted her chin to gaze into her eyes. “Want to spend the rest of your life with me?”
She didn’t hesitate as she kissed him, “always.”