He looked up to Irina, who was fastidiously brushing dirt and leaves from her dress. He looked down at himself and realized that he was just as dirty. Mat would be so worried. Except she… and the thought stopped when his heart started to hurt and his nose started to burn and so did his eyes because they were full of tears. Then everything went away. Irina blurred, just like the dead trees behind her. The smell of smoke and oil vanished and so did the feeling of tears on his cheeks and chin. All that was left was the fear of running and the grief of mother.
And then, after a moment, Irina's warm hand was on his face, wiping cold tears away. It took a moment to focus on her voice, but after a moment he heard, "…brave, yes? You will be brave. You must be brave. And we must go. We must walk. For if father finds us, or the bad man, the bad man coming to get us, then we will be terrible. Do you understand? Alexi?"
He thought a moment, translating what she said in English back to Russian, then nodded. "Kak hrabryĭ, kak ty?" He asked.
"Oh, Alexi." Her lip quivered for a minute and he started to cry again, not wanting to see her cry. "Ostanovka!" She commanded and drew herself up. "As brave as you. Yes. You are much braver than I am. Remember when we were at the dacha and I saw a mouse and screamed? And then you caught it and gave it to the cat. Very brave. So I am being as brave as you, Alexi. Yes?"
He remembered her, standing on a tuffet with wide eyes, her braids shaking first in shock, then in anger as he laughed at her. Remembering catching the mouse and letting her know he hadn't killed it, but given it to the cat to kill and eat made him proud of himself. He puffed out his chest and nodded staunchly.
"Good. Let's go." She turned promptly and, checking the sky once for the position of the sun, set out.
He was still scared. He still missed his father and mother terribly and hated this new country. But Irina was with him. And that meant it would probably be okay.
"Think of it as an adventure, Alexi." Her voice drifted back to him.
Yes, an adventure. A big, new country and Irina there always to lead him into a big, new adventure.
"Iris! Iris!" He hurried down the road behind her, trying to catch up with his sister.
"I told you not to linger," she said, with asperity, looking down at him.
He couldn't help but grin. He was getting to be as tall as she was. "I don't like the library as much as you. I want to go play ball."
"Then go." She had a way of being impatient only for him. He never heard her talk to anyone else in that tone.
"But—" he complained, finally falling in beside her.
She didn't say anything for a moment. "But what?" She finally asked, and he could hear annoyance in her voice, even though she was trying to hide it.
"I also wanted to go for a walk with you."
She looked over to him, twisting her mouth into something approximating a smile.
"Are you going to borrow a book when we get to the library?" She was still humoring him.
"Are you?" He asked.
"I wouldn't be walking to the library if I didn't want to borrow a book." She slowed a little and he watched the set of her shoulders relax.
"What book will you look for?"
"Norman said that Mrs. Duncaster told him that the library had new pattern books."
"Are you going to make a new dress?" He could imagine her in the some of the dresses he saw on girls at school. They were such pretty colors: peaches, pinks, and soft blues. All Iris's dresses were heavy and dark. They only suited her when she wasn't smiling. If she were smiling, she was bright as the sun.
"I might. If I like any of the patterns. Justin, why are you interested?" She smiled, and it was genuine this time.
He shrugged, honestly having no good answer. But he smiled back.
They walked a few more blocks in silence and he observed the way she relaxed bit by bit. "Well, I'm glad to have the company," Iris finally said.
"Even if you are scruffy from playing out of doors," she added, timing it in that way only she could so that he laughed at himself. When he laughed, so did she. He thought, not for the first time, that her laugh was waiting for him. That she, in almost everything she did, was waiting on him.
A few minutes later they arrived at the library. He left her at the door, feeling absurdly like he ought to kiss her cheek. "I hope you find a pattern you like."
She nodded, looking at him strangely. "Go play with your friends."
He nodded back and turned, starting to run right away. He chanced a look back and saw her standing at the library's door, watching him. He raised a hand to wave. She waved back, shaking her head and smiling at him. He turned and ran on, content to know she was happy.
"Iris, will you please come on a walk with me?"
"It's a beautiful day!" He exhorted. She was sitting at the secretary in the parlor, working on some bit of correspondence with a pencil. The windows were open and sweet breeze wafted the drapery in little fits.
"It's always a beautiful day. Do you even remember rain?" She paid more attention to her paper than she did to him.
"It rained last week," he laughed. "Come walk with me!"
"You have too much energy to burn off. Have you been sneaking into Norman's coffee again?"
"You always walk with me, Iris. Come now."
"Very well." She turned the paper she was scratching on over and rested her pencil on top. She stood and looked at him, her expression pinched, before smoothing out the nonexistent wrinkles in her dress. She walked past him without another word and he listened for the sound of the hall closet. After he heard the creak of the hinges he followed the sound to find Iris standing at the coat tree in the foyer, tying her bonnet on. He watched her fuss with the bow, getting just the right fullness to the loops of the ribbon before turning to him and giving him a look that was expectant, long-suffering, and loving all at once.
Justin led the way outdoors, feeling his sister's softly simmering tension behind him. The sun was sinking lazily at the horizon, giving the trees and grass a hot, orange cast. The evening birds weren't yet singing, but the insects were. Iris set a pace that was quick for her, though he had no trouble keeping up.
"Are you in a hurry, Iris?" He tried to slow his strides to get her to stay beside him, taking a more leisurely stroll. She cut her eyes sideways, clearly understanding what he was trying to do and having none of it.
"Justin, we don't have all the time in the world to wander aimlessly around town," she scolded.
"I think we do."
"Are your chores done?"
"Yes," he said slowly, letting himself fall half a step behind her again, so that she had to turn to speak to him.
"And your homework? You've done your problems for classes?"
"And you neatened your room?"
"Yes." When it became clear that she could think of no other tasks to set on him to stop him from demanding her company, he noted, "I think you're in a hurry because a suitor is coming to call."
He laughed at her embarrassment, even as she reached out to swat him on the arm.
"How dare you!" She continued, but he could tell her offense was for show. She was playing along with him, incensed for his amusement.
"Iris, you know I'll have to approve of any boy you want to bring home." He wasn't joking, but he didn't want her to know that.
"Honestly, between you and Norman it's a wonder I've ever had a boy call on me at all."
"Because you are a good Christian girl...." Justin prompted.
"I certainly am!" She agreed. "I have to be, to keep you out of trouble."
"You set a fine example, Iris."
She blushed then and the color in her cheeks was fetching. A suitor certainly would come to call on her. Many of them, most likely. He'd just have to make sure that none of them overstayed their welcome.
Justin couldn't help but preen with pride as his sister ran a brush over the lapels of his traveling suit. The fuss she made over him was welcome, a comforting constant while he anticipated large changes. Going to seminary was the right thing to do. He knew it. Norman knew it and had written him a recommendation. He was certain to do well and take over Norman's congregation or another congregation in central California. He was meant for the Lord's work. He knew that, deep in his bones. He knew in the same way that he knew Iris was something more than a sister to him, something that the Lord, who cherished his service, had made just for him. So he cherished her, following God's model.
"I'll miss you," he said, and was surprised to hear his voice sound hoarse.
Iris scoffed softly, just under her breath. "I'll miss you too, Justin. But I'll write you a letter a week."
"I promise." She patted him fondly on both shoulders. He was well taller than her now and she smiled up at him as he smiled down.
"Will you take a walk with me?"
"We don't have long until you'll need to be at the station, Justin."
"Nonsense. It's a fine afternoon and if I have to spend it cooped up in a rail car, then the least you can do is humor me for a few last minutes of fresh air."
"Honestly, Justin, you'd think you were going to the moon, not Los Angeles."
"Will you, Iris?" He set his hands on her shoulders, then slid them down to clasp both her hands.
She shook her head indulgently. "Let me get my hat."
She turned away from him, and stepped around his trunk. He watched her go, and said another small prayer of gratitude.
She was waiting at the door for him, hat situated smartly on her head. It was so different than the bonnets she'd worn when they were young. The new styles sat low, and the brim of this nearly covered her eyes. They left the house together, and he didn't look back. It felt natural to take her hand in his.
They walked in silence for another minute. He looked around at the groves of orange trees in the distance, their fruits just starting to round out on long limbs. By the time they were ripe, winter would have come and he'd be home for a visit.
"I remember a journey when we were children," he said. As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew he'd misspoken. Iris changed, looking at once hopeful, and melancholy, and tired. They never spoke of the train, or the forest or the journey they undertook before Norman found them. He knew that Iris remembered what they'd been through very clearly and went out of her way to shield him from it. Yet on some occasions, like now, she seemed to want to tell him something. She seemed to want him to remember more than he could, for a reason he could not fathom.
"Iris, will you... tell me about what happened?"
"Justin, let's stay cheerful before your journey."
"I can't help but think of it. Taking a journey by train...." He let the sentence trail off, not knowing what else to say.
"I wonder what the campus in Los Angeles will look like. As green as this?" Iris spoke briskly, her tone nearly brittle.
"Something important happened on that train."
"Ostanovka!" She hissed. Her eyes widened and she clapped a hand over her mouth. "Justin, you'll remember when you need to."
"So there is something I should know?" He felt his heart pounding in his chest. Iris seemed to look everywhere but at him.
She stopped and turn to face him. "You'll know when you're ready," she repeated, slowly, as though it took great effort. As he looked down on her, at her upturned face, his heart lurched. The slowly setting sun silhouetted her, making a few twists and curls of hair at her shoulders glint and shine. Her expression was so sincere and caring that he knew she could not keep anything from him if she didn't believe it was for his good.
He leaned down slowly and kissed her softly on the lips, almost as he had when they were children. But he lingered, searing the feeling into memory.
"Justin," Iris murmured, dazed.
He stood tall again and looked around them. The streets were far from empty, but no one seemed to pay them any mind.
"I know you have what's best for me in mind, Iris," he said and reached down to bring her hand up and tuck it into the crook of his arm. "We should get back. Norman will fuss."
She sighed and nodded. "Norman will fuss."
"Oh, Justin. How lovely." Iris set her carpet bag on top of her trunk and strolled into the parlor of the parsonage.
"Do you like it?"
"I do. What a nice parlor. It's so spacious." Iris turned to make her way into the dining room.
"The Lord has blessed me. Much as he's blessed Norman, and you." He stood in the parlor and waited for her to return from exploring the kitchen.
"Justin, this is what you always wanted." She walked to him and stopped briefly to squeeze his hand.
He cleared his throat. "Thank you for agreeing to live here with me. A pastor needs... a woman around." He fumbled for his next words and finally settled on repeating, "Thank you."
"I'm happy to be here, Justin. I think Norman was beginning to get tired of me."
"He has tried to marry you off several times." He tried to chuckle, but they both knew it was no joke. Iris had passed the age at which nearly all her peers were married.
"If the Lord wills me to be here with you," she said briskly, "then I will do His will." She smiled too brightly.
He smiled back.
After a beat of silence, she dropped his hand and started back toward the foyer. "I think you can get my trunk up the stairs. I'll follow with the smaller things."
"Let's take a walk."
"Justin, there's so much to do."
"There is plenty to do, yes. But it's been so long since we spent any time together and it's such a pleasant afternoon."
"Justin, I'll never understand your need to move all the time."
"Neither will I. Come walk with me."
He held out his hand as he walked toward her and she slipped hers easily into it. He raised his arm to lead her around the pile of luggage set just inside the door.
They set out, strolling easily down Mintern's sidewalks, some paved, others not. He pointed out the post office, the library, and the Woolworth's. Iris listened closely as he described the town and his new congregation. She seemed to hang on his every word, as though she'd missed him as much as he'd missed her.
"It feels right to be walking with you again, Iris."
She gave him a sunny smile and he knew all would be right.
...if you are the son of God, tell this stone...
...give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me...
...put the Lord your God to the test...
There was no end to the pain. There was no longer solace to be found. He could feel his sister holding him, on her knees in the dirt, but she was only a shell. He was only a shell. If this was the Lord's will, what had happened? He was a man without a purpose. How could he have tested the Lord's handiwork? He would walk. He would walk, as Jesus walked, in the wilderness, and find again the comfort of those things he cherished. He would find purpose at his Father's hand.