Nikki is five years old and her daddy bounces her on his knee. He rubs his hands over her chubby little back and says things like, she looks like you, and she has strong legs, I know. She'll do well, and it's a right pity her eyes aren't brighter. She sucks her thumb, has her hand slapped, and doesn't understand a single word they say, but daddy mentions a puppy, a trip to the mines, and she giggles in delight.
yes, she'll do just fine.
His hands are big and soft and they brush slowly, slowly down her hair.
Barbara curls in on herself, the cancer pain renders her almost unrecognizable. Nicki feels sweat pool at the small of her back as she bends over to sooth the other woman as best as she can. What can she do though? Only time, the Doctor says. Only time and so many doses of radiation that Barbara vomits up every bit of food and liquid she takes in.
Bill's wife grabs her hand and holds on tight, so tight. Nicki feels the blood stop in her veins.
"Please, please... please take care of Bill... he'll be so... please, dear. Please love my children, love them like your own..."
Nicki feels her heart grow still and she knows now why J.J had suddenly been sent away, why she is given permission to come and care for the wife of a man The Prophet hates. The Prophet wants a different path for her. She bows her head to Barbaras and whispers a word of comfort, even as she knows the lies. Bill is her way out.
Nicki is eight and climbing a huge tree to escape all her brothers and sisters. Only Alby knows where she is and he isn't telling. He leaves her alone to her thoughts and takes everyone else on a walk through the woods. Nicki can see the world on her perch! She caws like a crow and listens to the squirrels gossip and chatter. She sings a trilling song and it's like there's no one else in the world. She's tall, she's on top, she is like a queen and princess and she loves the world around her.
Barb looks down her grocery list and sighs. "I'm sorry, Nicki. I don't think we can keep our budget if we have organic foods." She hesitates, and then says, "but we can buy some of those peaches you like." Barb takes up a pen and crosses through most of Nicki's list, doing it with brisk efficiency and Nicki knows her place in this new family of theirs.
Nicki is eleven years old and she runs to her mother, tears and snot gunking up her cotton dress. She thinks shes is dying, she knows she is dying, she is bleeding into her underwear and how long will it be until she loses all the blood in her body? She saw it happen once to Uncle Jacob, who was run over by a tractor. Is she going to be like him? Is she? Is she?
Mother is silent and looks at Nicki, at her baby girl with those beautiful eyes, with that long blonde hair that's the talk – talk, talk, talk - of the colony. And she smiles.
"Oh, honey, that's the sign from the Holy Lord you're becoming a..."
She gasps, tries to swallow her voice, but Bill does something wicked to her neck and Nicki muffles the scream into his shoulder. She bites hard enough to break skin; the taste of salty iron floods her mouth and for a moment, she is fearful of what he will do, what he will say, but all he does is groan and grind into her and she feels something build, bubble, crescendo and it's nothing like before, it's nothing like when she was fifteen and that dark, cramped house where her screams were muffled by a hand. Oh, it's nothing like that at all. She shudders and she thinks she's going to come apart, but Bill grabs her hand and sinks into her and she feels his hot semen spurt thickly into her. He presses a sweaty kiss to her temple and her heart aches like she might very possibly die.
They sleep. Rather, Bill sleeps. Nicki stares out the window.
No. She won't think of J.J., she won't think of Cara... oh... no. No. Bill will be getting up early again, he has a long, hard road ahead of him and his business is only just taking off, it's still so fragile. He'll be putting in more and more hours. He's tired all the time and he works hard, harder than anyone she's ever know.
She cries silenty so that she won't wake him.
Nicki is thirteen years old and Alby shushes her. He presses her deeper into the thicket and his eyes tell her to be quiet. They look outward and she feels the tenseness in his still-gangly shoulders, in arms and legs that aren't quite grown into adulthood. She listens to the rapid heartbeat in his chest and his arms tighten around her. Daddy is out there with one of her uncles. Uncle G-somethign? J-something? Either way, he's a little weird and he touches her all the time and says things like God gave you to this world and it's only right that I take it. He's a strange one and she pays him no mind.
He swallows and his Alby apple juggles. Their voices fade away as they reetner the Prophet's home. Alby tightens his arms around her. She can tell he is upset about something. He trembles faintly. So she leans in and snuggles into this arms.
But he stays that way and Nicki never sees him free again.
A bag full of groceries is placed on the kitchen counter and Nicki peeks inside. There are organic tomatoes and peaches and even artichokes, the strange looking vegetables she's come to love. They are divine and nothing like carrots and peas and corn; they are ridiculously expensive and as unsensible as they come. She looks up in confusion and Barb smiles at her. "I figure we could give it a try. They let me sample the tomatoes and I have to say, they do taste better. " She opens the fridge. "What do you say, Nicki? Lets make a spaghetti and meatballs today."
Nicki is fifteen years old.
She is to be married to Uncle J.J. The Prophet says he is a godly and righteous man; she is lucky to be his daughter. She has the top pick and won't be given away like the others. Nicki bows her head and agrees. There is not much she should say to the contrary. He pets her on the head, brushes his hand softly down her face and leaves their house with his bodyguards and her mother. Nicki wonders what her mother thinks.
Long moments pass. Alby puts his hand on her shoulder and Nicki realizes why. There are tears running down her face and she turns to hiim and she salts and cures his plaid shirt and she knows, she knows that in a way he approves, but he does not approve for her and she wishes she could hide forever. .
Barb averts her eyes and Nicki can see that she is unwilling to bring another wife into this marriage. But no. She won't say no to Bill. Not to Bill who wants Margie so very much and Nicki knows that Barb won't ever say no, not when she knows that her uterus will be empty for all her years to come and that there will be no more children in their house without Nicki and more wives. Bill wants more children; he always wants more children.
Bill votes yes. Barb votes yes. Nicki looks at Barb, thinks about fruit and peaches and votes no.
Nicki is fifteen and he touches her with his cold wet hands and his cold wet eyes run their way down her hair and cold wet lips brush again hers and it is all cold and wet and there is never an ounce of heat or pleasure and Nicki feels him rip her apart and it's like someone is shoving a rake into her and the pain is almost unbearable, is unbearable and she tries to scream, she does scream, she screams, she hits him, she tries to get away, but he presses her down onto the floor, his belt digs into her thigh and he ruts against her, slaps her in the face, he shoves his fist into her mouth, he renders her silent as he moves above her and this is a godly man, this is a righteous man, and he jerks, he comes, and he sighs.
Nicki draws her children close to her and she feels the hot softness of their skin, their sticky fingers run over her face, she looks at their eyes, at their love for her, and Nicki knows children who are hers. Sometimes, she thinks of Cara Lynn, of the soft gurgles and sounds she made. Sometimes, she wishes she could be a better mother and have the gumption to stay rather than flee. But Nicki knows herself. She's selfish and that was as much a trade as The Prophet giving her virginity to J.J for seven parcels of land.
Sometimes, she feels old, like her youth is abrupty shaved from her. Barb's children are laughing sun children, all golden and carefree and she hopes, no, she wishes, that her own will be like that someday.
She hopes for Cara Lynn.
Nicki is eighteen and unsealed.
She is eighteen and she marries Bill.
She is eighteen and she leaves her child behind.
She doesn't look back.
It doesn't like go like this.
Nicki watches Ray drive away, remembers the way he kisses her back, the occasional shy hand on her arm. Proper dinner, proper flowers, thoughtful, thoughtful gift. He treats her like she's Nicki, with no Grant surname, no Henrickson surname, and before him, she didn't even know that was possible. That it is possible. Ray likes Nicki for Nicki. He pressed a promise into her hand, a kiss to her cheek and he tells her that the world is open to her; she can choose anything she wants. He wants her and her boys, he is sorry he cannot change the deal with The Prophet, but he will join the Henricksons for family dinner every other weekend. He will have and behold and Ray could very well be the person just for her (like how once upon a time, Bill was just for Barb).
They become one big family, no secrets, Bill and Ray become friends, Marg and Barb are over every other day for gossip and cooking secrets, the children play with each other, Nicki's children never think it's strange and yes, Cara Lynn comes to her.
It doesn't go like this, but Nicki wishes it had.
Nicki is over thirty years old.
For the first time in her life, she is living on her own. She has no father to barter her marriage like a commodity. There is no husband to support her, but at the same time, there is no husband to tell her that one is one and two is two and the Devil is the trick and hooves are claws. She counts the cracks in the ceiling and there are no cracks. Her luggage is piled in the bedroom and it will be days before the boys join her. She is glad Cara will stay with the big family rather than join her in exile. She is once more, unsealed. It is unlikely anyone else will ever want her in marriage again. Ray is undoubtedly telling everyone what a crazy bitch she is.
Nicki listens to the silence, hears no whispering, no heartbeat, no grunting, no tears. She is breathing, she is humming-not-singing.
And she is here.