I hear the main gate slam closed, and I just know from the sound of it that Harry has news. He must have banged the gate really hard, as it’s a fair distance from the farmhouse. He would do that, I’m sure, only if he was sending me a message. He must have finally found our new Lucille. Relief floods me. We’ve never gone this long without one before, not in the whole time I’ve been here. Finally, we’ll have some good news for him.
I’ve drawn the heavy velvet curtains on the windows, but the heat creeps in around the edges anyway. Beneath my corset and layers of petticoats, my body sweats. A heavy wind rattles the windows. Bushfire weather—?that’s how my father would’ve described it. Fire was something my parents worried about a lot when we lived in our old house, surrounded by trees.
Fire. Family. My old home. Things I don’t let myself think about in here.
It will take Harry at least five minutes to cover the expanse from the gate to the farmhouse—?longer if Felicity spots him coming—?but even so, I long to gather up my skirts and dash out of the parlor, outside, to the very edge of the front veranda, and wait for him to come into view. I love watching Harry walk. There’s something so reassuring about his unhurried lope.
But I am the Esther, and Esther doesn’t dash. Her remembering book is very clear about that. Esther’s movements are dignified, considered—?especially in the parlor. Esther would never let excitement or nervousness show, or waste time watching people walk.
Sometimes being Esther feels like wearing a Halloween costume. One that doesn’t fit. One I can’t ever take off.
With great effort I stay in my chair, listening to the daytime noises of the farmhouse and continuing with my work. On the little wooden table beside me are the socks for darning. Clothing repairs are normally the Lucille’s task, but the mending has piled up to the point where it can’t wait any longer. The sock I’m currently working on is one of Harry’s and it has his smell. Hay, earth, sun. As I push the needle through the fabric, I picture him striding across the farm toward me, coming closer and closer. Past the chickens and the area where the crops grow. Past the peach tree completely covered, the Felicity assures me, with promising green nubbles of fruit. Then, finally, between the two lemon-scented gum trees standing like border guards where the farm officially ends and the kitchen garden begins.
When I know Harry must be close, I strain to hear his steps—?and yes, there they are. Purposeful but not rushed, matching the steady rhythm of his breath.
I am always edgy when Harry leaves the farm. When I first arrived here, he made it clear that the farm was the only safe place left in the world. Beyond the front gate were innumerable dangers. Security guards, police officers, doctors, teachers, parents, all lying in wait to force us back into lives that didn’t really belong to us. And even though I don’t believe this anymore—?not really—?I’m always relieved each time Harry returns safely.
The handle of the front door rattles as it turns. There are footsteps in the hallway and finally the parlor door swings open. Harry fills the doorway as air and light flood the dark, stuffy space. He’s breathing deeply, and when I sneak a quick glance at him, I notice that his wheat-colored hair forms damp swirls against his forehead. It’s hardly surprising, considering the thick trousers and woolen jacket he’s wearing.
I put down the sock and hurry (while trying to appear not to hurry) over to the sideboard, where I have a carafe of water waiting. My hand trembles as I pour a glass for Harry.
Slow, considered movements, I remind myself. He is probably watching us right now, and he mustn’t suspect how tense I am.
Outside the window, the generator whirs. I have questions, lots of them, but I keep them in check. Conversations between Harry and Esther must be as formal as a script. I hand the glass of water to Harry, careful not to let our fingers touch or our eyes meet. “Did you see Lucille today?”
My voice is smooth and calm and perfectly Esther, but I’m sure Harry senses my nervousness. Last time, the Lucille was renewed in four days. This time it’s been almost three weeks. The followers—?especially Lucille’s—?keep asking how much longer it will be before they see her again. And it’s only a matter of time before he loses patience with us.
Harry gulps down the water. “Yes,” he says when he’s finished. “I saw her.”
Although it’s the answer I was expecting, I can barely keep from flinging my arms around Harry’s neck. I refill his glass to give myself time to regain composure. If any of the followers are watching, they need to see that we have everything under control—?that Lucille has simply gone away and will come back soon, just like she has before.
“How is she?” I ask.
Two dents appear on Harry’s forehead, as though invisible fingers have pressed into his skin. The impressions are gone in an instant, but I know what they mean. When normal forms of communication are restricted, you learn to gather information in other ways. That slight frown means there are changes to the Lucille. Significant ones.
“Her hair seems straighter, and a little lighter.” Like me, Harry knows better than to let his concerns show in his voice. “She’s obviously been spending some time in the sun.” Automatically, my eyes flick over to the photograph above the mantelpiece. Gilt-framed. Dominant. The image itself is a little blurry—?as if it’s been enlarged—?but it’s still clear enough. Four figures stand on the veranda of an old stone farmhouse. Three of them are girls in gloves and long white dresses.
The smallest girl in the photo has thick braids and a cupid’s kiss of a face. Above her, written in old-fashioned cursive, is a name: Felicity.
Near her is a male, and his beard makes him look older than he really is, which is probably no more than nineteen. He has one arm protectively around Felicity, his shoulders seeming so broad compared with her tiny child’s frame. Harry.
To his left is a girl with dark curls and a curvy figure. Her chin is held up in a way that could be proud or defiant, or both. Lucille.
The fourth figure, standing near the front door, is a tall, thin girl with her hands clasped. Her expression is smooth and unreadable. That’s me. Esther.
Screwed into the wall beneath the photograph is a little brass plate. I can’t read the engraving from here, but I know what it says. The Special Ones.
The followers often ask me the same ques...