Don’t Cross The X

Set in rural South Carolina, Don’t Cross the X is the heartbreaking story of Pearl Hayes. In 1919, she crossed a large X etched into the dirt near a local blackberry field and got trapped in a witch’s force of evil. Eighty-two years later, Pearl tells her story to her progeny with a warning: the evil that took her life from her will come to take theirs, too.

Age Rating: 18+ (Content Warning: Murder, Rape, Extreme violence/gore)

 

Don’t Cross The X by Tina LaPere is now available to read on the Galatea app! Read the first two chapters below, or download Galatea for the full experience.

 


 

The app has received recognition from BBC, Forbes and The Guardian for being the hottest app for explosive new Mystery, Thriller & Suspense novels.
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Subgenres:

Thrillers, Mystery & Suspense, Crime Fiction

 

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Read the full uncensored books on the Galatea iOS app!

Chapter 1

Summary

Set in rural South Carolina, Don't Cross the X is the heartbreaking story of Pearl Hayes. In 1919, she crossed a large X etched into the dirt near a local blackberry field and got trapped in a witch's force of evil. Eighty-two years later, Pearl tells her story to her progeny with a warning: the evil that took her life from her will come to take theirs, too.

Age Rating: 18+ (Content Warning: Murder, Rape, Extreme violence/gore)

Original Author: Tina LePere

June 22, 2001

Black eyes with red slits down the center stare at me. Bugs scurry out of the gray, matted hair and down the puckered, crackled face that belongs to those villainous eyes.

Tight, splintered lips turn up and display tawny, rotten teeth. The mouth opens, dispensing the scent of burning flesh. “Pearl, it’s time—”

My eyes spring open, but my mind is empty, unoccupied by any thought of remembrance.

Why is my heart beating so fast? With a trembling hand, I cover my heart until it slows to a dawdling pace.

I lift my head and search for the red numbers, which reads 10:28. “Is that all?”

I drop my head back on the soft pillow and close my eyes.

Is it true your life flashes before your eyes right before you die? What if you can’t remember that life?

Tap, tap, tap.

I open my eyes.

The door opens, letting in a hint of light from the hallway into my dimly lit room. “Are you awake, Mrs. Pearl?” a soft, feminine voice I don’t recognize whispers through the crack.

I heave a sigh. “Yes, come in.”

I brace my hands underneath myself and push up, but my elbows buckle and slide back to my sides, making my back hit the mattress.

My eyelids flicker when tears swell behind them, and I wipe at them quickly with my quivering hand.

The woman with the soft voice strolls in, closing the door behind her, and goes straight to the only window in my small room.

She edges open the darkening curtains, letting a trace of sunshine seep through the cracks of the blinds.

“Okay?” she asks, glancing over her shoulder.

When my eyes adjust to the faint light, I nod.

She flings the curtains the rest of the way open, filling the room with daylight. She turns around and gives me a soft smile as she walks to the light switch and flips it on, making the room come to life.

Without taking my eyes off the woman in the light pink scrubs, I feel around on the bedside table until I find the ceramic bowl.

I grab my teeth, clanging them against the rim and shaking off the excess water, before popping them into place with ease.

The woman standing in front of me slowly fades away, and Mary appears.

My breath gets caught in my throat, and my praying hands cover my opened mouth. “Mary, is that you?”

She laughs. “Yes, Mrs. Pearl. It’s me.”

I tilt my head as my eyes scan her. “You’re different. Did you cut your hair?”

Her eyes light up. “Oh, Mrs. Pearl, you noticed. Yes, I did, and colored it.” She runs her hands down the burgundy bob and pushes up on the ends. “Do you like it?”

“Yes,” I mutter, peeking at the red flashing numbers on the clock.

“It’s lovely.” I look away from the clock and back at her. “You’re late.”

“Uh-huh, it took longer than I thought. I’m sorry I’m late.”

“Oh, it’s all right. The big one took care of me just fine.”

She lifts a brow. “You mean Debra.”

I look at my hands, now knotting the blanket. “Yes, that’s what I said. She brought me breakfast. Burned oatmeal.” I pause, twisting my lips. “No, no—it was runny eggs and flat pancakes.” I beam. “Yes, that was it.”

She sighs.

“I’m sure it wasn’t that bad. Do you need your bedpan?”

“Yes, it was, and no, I’m fine,” I grumble. God, I miss the days when I could pee on my own, or do other things that are too embarrassing to share with others.

It’s not fun getting old.

Her hands find her hips and she taps her foot. “What year is it?”

My eyes fix on the veins under my thin skin covering my hands as they straighten the cluster of pleats of the blanket.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“It’s 2001, Mrs. Pearl.”

“Already? Time sure flies when you’re having fun.” I smirk.

“Mm-hmm.” She rewards me with a crooked smile and walks to the closet. “Who’s the president?”

I roll my eyes. “Don’t care.”

I put my arms underneath myself and push up, but fall back for the second time. Or is it the third?

She shakes her head while pulling open the shuttered bi-fold doors. “Don’t be like that, Mrs. Pearl.”

She claps her hands together.

“Now, let’s get you dressed!” she says, disappearing into the closet and emerging with a purple dress, fanning it against her body. “How’s this one? I like this one.”

I shrug and look away.

“Sure,” I mumble and push up. At last I get into a sitting position, feeling elated. Arching my stiff back, I hear crack, crack, and I wince. Urgh. My back aches all the time.

Not slightly, God no, it hurts like the devil’s inside me, pulling my spine apart. Some game he’s playing, and by George if he isn’t winning! But I guess that’s an unpleasant part of getting old, one of many.

When you get to be my age—well, whatever age that may be—the aches follow you from the time you wake to the time you fall asleep, and then after.

I throw the blanket off my legs and swing my feet off the side of the bed, dangling above the tile floor. I take a deep breath before I stand on rickety legs and flap my arms as I wobble.

Mary’s at my side in an instant. “Oh, Mrs. Pearl, let me help you.” She grabs my waist, but I fall back on the bed and take her with me.

She regains her balance and straightens. “We’ll need your wheelchair, Mrs. Pearl. Your legs don’t want to cooperate today, do they?”

A small, sad smile creeps over her face.

“I’ll just take a nap.”

I grab the old, worn-out red-and-white flannel shirt I like to snuggle with and lay my head back on the pillow, but she grabs my arms and pulls me back into an upright position.

“Oh, no you don’t! You just woke up from your nap. We need to get you dressed for your party.”

Before I can protest, she lifts the silk gown over my head, tosses it in the hamper, and replaces it with the muumuu.

“What party?”

She grabs my hairbrush from the dresser.

“Your birthday party.”

I look at the floor and scratch my head. “It’s my birthday? Today?”

“Well, no, it’s tomorrow, but it’s the only day your family could come.” She runs the brush through my tousled, thinning white hair.

I look back at her as my head bobs to the side with each yank of the brush. “My family?”

“Yes, your great-granddaughter, Meredith, was here last month and…”

My eyes drop to the floor as Mary’s voice fades.

I remember having a daughter at one time, but I don’t remember her name. It’s at the tip of my tongue, and it’s so frustrating that I can’t reach it. What is her name?

I rub a finger along the rivers on my forehead.

I had boys—two, maybe three—but I can’t recall their names either.

A feeling of desperate suffocation starts in the middle of my aching back, crawling forward slowly to envelop my wheezing chest.

Why can’t I remember their names?

I clutch the flannel shirt tightly, frantically, and notice it’s missing a few buttons and is frayed and tattered at the edges.

I hold it to my nose and take a deep breath.

The sweet vanilla-and-cherry scent I loved is no longer there. Where did it go?

“…that family is super-rich.” Mary huffs, waves the brush in the air, and drops it on the dresser.

“Meredith wanted for nothing, I can tell you that,” she says as she steps toward the wheelchair sitting in the corner and bends at the waist, releasing the brakes.

“What?”

She straightens, grips the handles with tight fists, and glimpses at the ceiling. “Oh, never mind,” she says on an exhale before pushing the chair toward me.

“Where are we going?”

I ask as she hoists me up and quickly helps me slide into the seat.

She sighs. “To your party. I just told you, remember?”

I shake my head, my face burning with frustration. “I don’t want a party.”

She grabs my thick glasses from the nightstand and puts them over my eyes before placing the multi-colored afghan from off the end of the bed around my legs.

“It’s your hundred and fifth tomorrow. You’re the oldest here at the home, maybe even the whole state of South Carolina. Don’t worry, it’s just your family. But…”

She beams, her eyes sparkle with excitement, and she bites her bottom lip.

Live 5 News and The Post and Courier want to do a news piece on you. You can be on television! Isn’t that great?”

I wave her off. “Oh, I have nothing worth talking about.”

“Well, you can think about it. It sounds like fun.”

She opens the door, pushing down on the stopper with the thick sole of her soft leather clog.

“Let’s go to your party.” She wheels me out the door and kicks the stopper, releasing it. The door closes behind us with a soft click.

“All right, let’s get this over with,” I say with spite not directed at Mary. I want to get this over with—this entire miserable life over with.

We pass by doors with colorful drawings attached to them: big black trains with red cabooses, stick figures under blazing yellow suns, and farm animals in front of bright red barns.

Most aren’t even colored in the lines.

They’re dangling their family in front of my face like a slice of sweet, sticky pecan pie. They’re taunting me. We have family, and youuu don’t!

A heated wave crashes into my heart when a pang of jealousy comes out of nowhere.

It’s an emotion I’m not used to, and I hate it. Others here are lucky to have a family who visits them often.

My door has sat unadorned since the day I arrived, and it will be that way until I leave in the back of the coroner’s van. No, I don’t want the pie—they can keep it.

The aroma of turkey and gravy, macaroni and cheese, and green-bean casserole wafts through the cafeteria when we enter. A dozen round tables fill the open room, occupied by residents chatting with their relatives.

It’s all the same. “How are you today, Papa? You look great, Granny! Oh, my bunions are killing me.” Blah, blah, blah.

My eyes roam amidst my bitterness, stopping on a young woman with a little girl sitting at a table near the wall of windows overlooking the backyard, staring in my direction.

The woman whispers in the little girl’s ear before they both stand.

This must be my family.

Mary pushes me forward, stopping at the table with a small store-bought cake that doesn’t look edible enough to eat, but I’ll never complain…out loud.

A flash of red catches my eye.

I turn my head and see the woman’s cherry nail polish melt from her fingertips. I glance around, but everyone else is greeting one another with pleasantries.

I rub my eyes behind my glasses before looking back at the dripping polish and leaning in. No, it’s not polish—it’s blood!

It trickles from her nails, making ten tiny puddles on the floor.

The sound amplifies like water dripping into a cave’s pool. Plop. Plop. Plop. She must’ve chopped off her fingertips with the cake knife.

But I get a glimpse of the knife blade—clean—on the table.

When I look back at her nails, the blood is dry and turned back into the God-awful red polish. I shudder and rub my eyes again.

They’re playing tricks on me.

God, I hope I’m not hallucinating, but I’m afraid that’s what has happened. What kind of pills did that big woman give me this morning?

“You’re shivering; let me close the vent. It’s a hot one today, and they have the air cranked up.” Mary slides a chair under the ceiling vent. “That’s Southern heat for you.”

I slouch. “No, I’m fine, Mary,” I say before she has a chance to step onto the chair.

“You sure? It’s not a problem.”

“I’m fine,” I repeat. I don’t want her thinking I’m going crazy on top of my forgetfulness.

“Okay.” Mary looks at her watch. “Do you want your lunch?”

I shake my head and look at the white fluff in the pink cardboard box next to the clean knife. “No.” I swallow; my throat feeling like it’s coated in sand. “I’ll just have cake.”

I watch the woman’s cherry nails land on my shoulder as she bends and kisses my cheek. “Happy birthday, Nana,” she says into my ear before straightening.

“This is your great-granddaughter Meredith,” Mary says.

I shoo her away with my hand. “I know, I know. I remember,” I snap.

Meredith’s fancy black dress, which is hanging from her scrawny body, makes it appear as if she’s on her way to a funeral.

By the looks of her sickly thin figure and pale complexion, I’d say it’s her own.

She tosses her long, brown hair over her shoulder, showing off an enormous diamond ring, among others, and several thick gold necklaces wrapped around her tiny neck.

More diamonds decorate her ears.

Are they sure I’m related to this woman?

I turn to the cute, little brown-haired, blue-eyed girl, and my mind surges with perplexity. My breath hitches, and my back straightens. “Angela?”

“This is Sara—”

Oh.

I slouch again.

“—your great-great-granddaughter, Nana,” Meredith screeches.

“I’m not deaf,” I say, cringing, and swat my ear.

Meredith pushes the timid girl closer—her flip-flops shuffle across the tile while her hand fists the skirt of her pale yellow dress.

She lets go of her dress, and I take her small hand in mine.

“You remind me of someone I knew a long time ago.” Angela. I smile, feeling rejuvenated by remembering her name. Angela.

She drops her eyes and grins as her pale cheeks turn the color of a pink rose and expand over her freckled nose.

“Here, let me have that.”

Mary takes a blue balloon that reads HAPPY BIRTHDAY from Sara’s other hand and ties it to the arm of my wheelchair.

Sara gives me a gentle hug as if afraid I’ll break.

“Happy birthday, Nana,” she says, her voice small and apprehensive.

“Thank you, sweetheart,” I say, smiling at her when she releases me. “How old are you?”

“I’m eleven, almost twelve.”

“That’s a good age,” I say, turning away and glancing around the room at all the unfamiliar faces involved in trivial conversations.

Meredith is sitting on the sofa, alone, watching us, chewing a piece of gum with her arms folded, and rapidly bouncing her leg over her knee. I look back at Sara. “Where’s your father?”

Sara’s face drops as she puts her hands behind her back and twists back and forth. “He died in a car accident a long time ago.”

“Oh, dear. I’m sorry,” I say to her as Mary hands me a piece of cake. “Thank you, Mary.”

“You’re welcome,” Mary says.

I pick up the plastic fork with shaky hands and shove the cake into my mouth, swallowing the dry morsel with a gulp. My taste buds don’t care it’s my birthday.

But I don’t want to hurt Meredith’s feelings, so I nod my approval of the delicious flavor to her and eat it without complaining. She shakes her head when Mary offers her a piece.

“Are you nervous, Nana?” Sara asks.

I turn my attention back to the little girl in front of me.

“No, sweetheart”—I chuckle—“I’m not nervous; I shake sometimes. It’s a part of getting old. When you get to be my age, you’ll do things you can’t control. It’s life.”

“How old are you?”

I stare at her. How old am I? Mary told me earlier…

After a moment, Mary answers, “She’ll be one hundred and five tomorrow.” She places a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll leave you to your party, Mrs. Pearl. Will you be all right?”

I pat her hand. “You go. I’ll be fine.”

“Okay, I’ll come back and check on you later,” Mary says and walks away.

Sara stands beside my wheelchair, gawking at me.

“What, sweetheart? What’s on your mind?” I ask.

She scrunches her nose. “You’re old.”

“Sara!” Meredith shouts, and Sara jumps. “That’s not nice; you can’t say things like that.”

I narrow my eyes at Meredith. “Why not? I am old, and I’m not ashamed of it.”

“But—” Meredith starts as loud music shrieks from her direction.

I grab the chair’s arms and recoil away from the sound. “Good lord, what is that awful noise?”

Meredith digs around in her huge black purse and pulls out a little silver gadget. She flips it open, silencing it. “Hold on, Scott,” she speaks into it before pulling it away from her ear and standing.

“I’ve got to take this.”

She turns to Sara. “Will you be okay here with Nana?”

“She’ll be fine.” I flick my hand at Meredith. “Go, so Sara and I can get acquainted.”

Without saying another word, Meredith marches down the hall, already speaking into the small telephone. Her voice fades when she disappears, and I shake my head.

Sara’s arms wrap around her midsection tightly and she drops her chin to her chest, as if she were trying to hide the enormous frown on her face.

I pull out one of the plastic folding chairs sitting around the table and pat the seat. “Come sit next to me.”

She plops down, heaving a great sigh, before she picks up the fork in front of her and stabs lumps of spongy yellow and creamy white, spreading it across the paper plate.

“What’s troubling you, sweetheart?”

Sara drops the fork on the plate, forgetting the cake massacre, and pulls a necklace from under her dress.

She slides the object attached to the chain back and forth across her chin and narrows her eyes as she looks at the floor.

“She’s always talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone,” she says and tightens her lips.

I nod at the necklace. “What do you have there?”

She stops, lifts her chin, and holds it toward me. “It was Grandma Lillian’s. I never met her. My mom gave it to me.” Her weary eyes glance at the empty hall before returning them back to me.

“She gives me presents, but she never spends time with me. She—”

I lean forward as my eyes fix on the X-shaped diamond pendant and all the sound around me disappears.

I reach for it, not able to look away, and the moment my fingers touch it, my body turns cold, pins and needles shoot down my spine, and a burning pain sears my fingertips.

I quickly drop the ornament and shrink back in my chair.

My unfocused eyes clear and all my forgotten memories rush back all at once like two steam trains colliding in my brain.

I remember Lillian and Meredith. I remember Angela, my boys, and Pierce.

I remember Hazel and her X—her godforsaken X.

Hot bile threatens to come up in my throat, and I grind my teeth behind tight lips. Everything she did to me throughout the years sickens me.

I remember it all.

I take a deep breath before focusing on the amazing blue eyes glued to mine. “Your mom loves you,” I say with clarity.

“People today are too busy for what’s truly important. Things were different when I was growing up. We were poor, we didn’t have a lot.”

I look at the empty hallway where Meredith disappeared and flick my wrist. “It was a time before they had portable telephones. We talked to each other. We told stories.” I look back at Sara.

“Would you like to hear a story?”

Her back straightens. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Have you heard of a witch named Hazel Sullivan?”

Her eyes bulge, almost popping out of their sockets, and she sucks in a lungful of air.

“You mean a real, live witch, Nana?”

“Yes, dear, a real, live witch. She wasn’t like the witches from fairy tales or movies you see today. You know, the ones with big noses, who wear the pointy black hats, and ride on brooms?”

“No, she was none of those things. I lived next to Hazel for five years.” I hold up an outstretched hand. “The first time I met her was the summer of 1919, and it was the worst summer of my life.”

I shake my head and gaze at the tall glass windows overlooking the back patio. I can’t believe it was so long ago.

I look back into Sara’s eyes, which are dancing with attentiveness.

“I wish I would’ve never met her, but by accident I did. That summer haunted me throughout my entire life.”

 

Read the full uncensored books on the Galatea iOS app!

Chapter 2

March 21, 1914

I don’t like the brown-haired, blue-eyed girl watching me; never have.

She looks too young and naïve for her seventeen years.

And why does she have those specks of brown dotting the bridge of her nose? Why can’t she be pretty like her sisters?

I lean forward, almost touching the mirror with my forehead, and rub the light-brown constellation with my finger, but it won’t come off.

I can’t count the many times I’ve tried to rub, scratch, wipe, and scrub the little specks until my nose turned bright red, but they’re stuck for good. No getting rid of them; at least I only have a handful of them.

I straighten and bite the inside of my cheek, giving the girl in the mirror one more hard glare when she touches the white ribbons holding her braids together.

“It’ll just have to do,” I mutter.

With a sigh, I walk out of the room I share with my three sisters.

Thomas and Samuel’s pallet is lying in the middle of the living-room floor. I shake my head and pick up the blankets, fold them, and drop them in the corner.

It’s the least I can do since I’ll be at the auction with Daddy while my siblings are working on the farm all day. They’re already out in the field, throwing seeds in holes and covering them back up again.

I’m the lucky one.

Mama’s pouring a bucket of well water into the sink, getting ready to clean the breakfast dishes, when she hears me and turns.

She sets the bucket on the counter and wipes her wet hands on the flour-coated apron tied around her baby bump. “Now remember, one pig, that’s it. Don’t let your father buy nothin’ else. You hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She straightens my collar and touches my braids. “Why do you wear your hair like this? It makes you look younger than you are. With your height, you don’t need any help with that.”

My eyes drop to the floor and my lips chase after them. “I like it this way,” I mumble and run my hands down the front of my white dress.

I only have a few dresses: a blue Sunday dress, a blackwork dress, and a white school dress. We’re poor, so we sew our own dresses, but with four girls, buying fabric is expensive.

Even though I’m the oldest, at only five feet, my sisters are taller than me. They’re able to share their dresses, but I can’t wear theirs. I’m stuck with the same three.

She lifts my chin.

“If you make sure your father buys only one pig and nothin’ else, I may have enough money to buy another piece of fabric, so you can make a new dress,” she whispers, wiping dust off my shoulder.

I grin.

“I sure would like a new dress.”

Our heads whip toward the back door when it opens. “Ready, Pearl? Let’s go git us some animals,” Daddy says, and then he’s gone, leaving the door open.

My grin fades, and I turn back to Mama.

She raises a brow and folds her arms over her chest.

“I’ll watch him. Only one pig,” I say before stepping out the door, knowing good and well I can’t promise that. Daddy’s the man of the house, and he does what he wants.

The auction is across town, and it takes almost two hours to get there traveling by horse and wagon, but it beats working in the fields all day.

Ahoohga!

A shiny black roadster with its top-down screams by, kicking up dirt in its wake. I cough and wave my hand in front of my face.

The woman’s blond hair flies in the wind, and the couple’s laughter is heard over the roar of the engine.

“It would be nice to have one of those,” I say.

Daddy’s quiet as he stares at the road ahead.

My eyes widen, and I point to the metal plate on the back, which reads 1913-258-GEORGIA. “Does that mean they’re from Georgia?” I ask with excitement.

He turns his head to the side. Ptuh.

Brown sludge flies out his mouth and onto the passing road, leaving some behind on his lips. He wipes it off with his sleeve. “I reckon.”

“Oh, it would be nice to visit there one day, wouldn’t it?”

I ask, doing my best not to grimace.

Daddy leans away from me, and his forehead wrinkles as he gawks at me. “How the hell am I supposed to know? I ain’t never left the state of South Carolina, and I ain’t plannin’ on it neither.”

He shakes his head and turns back forward. “I got everythin’ I need right here.”

I look down at my hands, scraping under my fingernails.

“Mama’s expecting you to bring back only one pig and nothing else,” I mumble without looking up.

“We’ll see,” he says and spits again. Ptuh.

I roll my eyes, but I look in the opposite direction before I do.

If he catches me rolling my eyes at him, he’d whup me for sure. I can hear it now: “You’re not too old to pick a switch. I’ll learn you a thing or two.”

I’ve picked my share. Picking the wrong switch only gets you more licks.

He likes the skinny ones, the ones that leave the sting a little longer than the others. I love Daddy, but he’s a strict man; he doesn’t tolerate disrespect.

We arrive at the auction near the edge of a deserted cotton field.

The rows and rows of green plants are missing their little balls of clouds, not ready to be harvested yet.

Empty wagons line the front of a rickety wooden fence that looks like it’ll fall if the wind blows too hard.

Trucks with metal cages filled with animals waiting to be sold are parked around the back of the old weathered barn set up for the auction.

We stop at a vacant spot, and Daddy pulls the brake on the side of the wagon.

“Dagnabbit,” he mutters as he jumps out, quickly ties the horse to a post, and hurries away, following the droves of men already heading toward the barn.

I sigh, climb down, and follow him inside.

When I get inside, my hand flies to my nose, pinching it. My eyes burn, and my mouth thickens with saliva.

Without a breeze, the stench from animal droppings and body odor loiter in the air, making my stomach churn.

I drop my hand to my side and take a few short breaths through my mouth, so I don’t embarrass myself or Daddy. He wouldn’t be happy.

Sunlight casts through the opened doors and the distorted wooden planks on the roof and walls, making it bright enough to see in here.

With no chairs to sit on, other than a few bales of hay around the edges and hayloft, it’s standing room only.

A group of men stands near the door collecting their numbers, but Daddy isn’t among them.

I step up on one of the hay bales and stand on tippy toes.

I look over wide-brim hats and balding heads and find him near the front of the crowd, so I hop down.

“Excuse me,” I say, squeezing through a cluster of hard shoulders and bony elbows. The heavy scent of sweaty armpits and stale cigars assaults my nose. Blech. I hold my breath and move faster.

“Watch it!” one man snarls.

“Where you off to, li’l lady?” another asks, banter in his voice.

“You can stand by me, darlin’,” a third says lecherously.

I gasp and jump when a hand grabs my bottom.

Too mortified to look back, I swat it away and keep moving.

When I get to Daddy, he’s staring at the empty circle framed by men, waiting for the auctioneer.

His hand twitches, whipping the lucky number fourteen card attached to a stick against the side of his leg, without looking in my direction.

I look through the smoke from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, and notice I’m the only woman here. Old men, stroking their long gray beards with grimy hands and wearing filthy coveralls, pack the room.

Some glower at me.

Others stare at me with lustful eyes, grinning, showing more missing teeth than not.

I scoot closer to Daddy and run my hands along the front of my white dress, feeling a bit overdressed. I should’ve worn the black one.

“One dollar, one dollar, one dollar, now two. Who’ll give me two dollar, two dollar—”

The auctioneer grabs my attention when he begins his call.

His rhythmic monotone chant is mesmerizing to watch, but my eyes keep wandering back to the number fourteen beside me going up with each bid.

A bid that’s not on a pig! Every time it goes up, my stomach shifts.

I drop my head with a frown and pinch the orange flowers on my dress, torturing them between two fingers. I really wanted a new dress.

“Four dollar, four dollar, four—”

Up it goes.

“Daddy,” I whisper.

Up it goes…again.

My bottom lip disappears behind my teeth, fighting back the urge to repeat myself. I can’t let him get mad at me for interrupting. He’ll just have to deal with Mama when we get home.

I stay silent for the rest of the auction and let him do what he wants to do. He’ll do it anyway without my blessing—that’s for sure.

***

I shake my head and cross my arms over my chest as I watch Daddy guide two pigs up the plank. “Mama won’t like this.”

Ptuh. “Don’t care. My money, my bizness.”

He slams the wooden slat in place, closing the pigs in, and picks up the chicken crate with four chickens and places it in the back of the wagon.

My shoulders slouch and when I turn, the world fades away and the only person left is a tall, lean, rugged man in Levi’s stalking this way.

His red-and-white flannel shirt is rolled up at the elbows, showing off his tanned muscular arms.

His intense brown eyes are focused, and his strides are long and vigorous as he walks toward Daddy with his hands tapping the sides of his long legs with each step.

He rakes a hand through his already ruffled nut-brown hair like it isn’t the first time he’s done so today.

My heart flutters while butterflies take flight in my stomach, and I realize my mouth is hanging open.

I close my mouth and touch my stomach, but the darn butterflies won’t land.

My knees weaken, so I grab ahold of the wagon with my sweaty palms and step around to the other side. I need to get away from him.

I’ve never felt like this before, and it terrifies me.

He stops behind Daddy and scratches his light stubble.

My eyes drift to his plump, desirable lips, and my finger strokes mine of its own accord.

What would it be like to kiss him?

He wipes his hands down the sides of his Levi’s before he fists his mouth, covering those tantalizing lips, and clears his throat. “Excuse me, sir.”

Daddy turns and looks at the stranger up and down, giving him a once-over. Ptuh. “Yes, what you want?”

The stranger extends his hand with a slight tremor. “Pierce Hayes.”

After a solid few seconds of eyeing the hand, Daddy shakes it. “Henry Rutherford.”

“I was noticin’ the girl inside.” Pierce tilts his head in my direction, but keeps his eyes on the man in front of him.

What—he noticed me?

My cheeks burn, and my eyes dart all around, looking anywhere other than at him. Old grizzly men load squealing livestock in wagons, and others chat over the haze of smoky cigars.

Their lips move, but I cannot hear their voices, because all the sound has dissolved around me. I pinch the collar of my dress out of habit, and I see both men turn in my direction out of the corner of my eye.

When my eyes find theirs again, they both jerk their heads toward each other.

Daddy hooks a finger inside his mouth and chucks out the brown glob he had hidden behind his lip, almost hitting Pierce’s dirty work boot. Ptuh.

“My daughter? Wottabout her?” He crosses his arms over his chest.

Pierce lets out a long breath, and his shoulders relax.

“I was a wonderin’…” He grabs a bandana from his back pocket, wipes his glistened forehead, and pockets it again. “Is she…is she spoken for?”

I gasp, hiding my mouth with my hand.

“Nope. Whatcha askin’, son?”

Daddy asks with a creased forehead.

Pierce looks at the ground while his fingers scratch his disheveled hair. “Her hand. How old is she?” he asks, before looking back at Daddy.

My stomach drops, and my heart bangs against the walls of my chest.

Daddy squints, eyeing the sky, and finally says, “Nearly eighteen, old ’nough, I reckon.”

“I got a place, a farm, set up on ten acres in the next town over, Walterboro. I’m doin’ fairly well. All the land ain’t cleared yet, but I’m workin’ on it.” He inhales.

“I’d sure like to marry your daughter. I’d like to do it right away, if that’s all right with you.” He glances at me and exhales.

I glare back at him with tight lips. This isn’t happening. I shouldn’t have come today!

“What’s the hurry?” Daddy asks.

Pierce’s shoulders lift. “I need the extra hand. It’s plantin’ season.”

“But I’ll be losin’ one of my hands. Wottam I gittin’ out of this?”

Pierce doesn’t speak for a good minute while he stares at Daddy.

His bottom lip disappears behind his teeth, and he shifts from one foot to the other.

“Well, I gotta extra cow I can spare,” he says. “I’ll bring it by tomorrow if you set up the preacher to marry us. Would that be all right?”

What? I’m getting traded for a cow? A cow? I can’t breathe. My heart beats faster, my mouth gapes, and my hand rubs the pain in my chest.

I want to speak my mind, but I know better.

Heat flashes through me as my temper rises, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

Daddy looks at the ground, kicking a pebble back and forth with the side of his boot.

There’s silence around us, like we’re the only three people here, even though people are mingling about.

After a moment without an answer, Pierce adds, “Sir, I’m an honest, decent, hard-workin’ man. I’ll take right good care of your daughter. You got my word.”

Daddy glances at me and sighs before sticking out his hand. “I reckon we got us a deal. She’ll be ready to leave after the ‘I do’s’ tomorrow.”

My shoulders drop when my heart sinks into my shoes, and all I can do is watch.

Pierce lets out a deep breath and shakes his hand. “Thank you, sir. I’ll do right by her, I swear.”

Daddy beckons me to join them in my marriage proposal with a flick of the wrist. “Pearl.”

My feet shuffle, kicking up dirt as I mosey over to them, astounded.

“Hurry it up, girl. We ain’t got all day.”

Once I’m in reaching distance, he grabs my shoulder and pulls me into a sideways hug. “Pearl, this here’s Pierce Hayes, your soon-to-be husband.”

“But Daddy, I want to graduate. Please, Daddy,” I whine.

“When does school let out?”

he asks.

“May. May 5th,” I say.

He nods at me and then looks at Pierce. “Can you wait ‘til after her schoolin’ is done?”

I give him a hopeful smile before I see Pierce out the corner of my eye shaking his head.

My smile drops.

“I need her now. I’m already workin’ my fields and need the extra hand. I’m twenty-eight and ready to start a family of my own. She looks like she’ll do.”

Pierce looks at me with apologetic eyes before turning them back at Daddy. “I’m sure you understand, sir.”

Daddy glances at me, and his arm tightens. “I’m sorry, Pearl.”

He locks eyes with Pierce.

“All right, be at the Grace Advent Christian Church on Cedar after service tomorrow, ‘round noon. We’ll do the weddin’ there, then she’ll be all yours.”

With a wide grin, Pierce shakes Daddy’s hand vigorously. “Yes, sir. I won’t be late.” Then he nods before he trots to his wagon and leaves without a glance back at his future wife. Me.

I watch the back of Pierce’s head disappear down the dirt road with blurry vision. What just happened?

I haven’t moved from my spot, and I’m now standing alone.

“Come on, Pearl. Don’t just stand there like a bump on a log. Let’s git home.” Daddy’s in the wagon with reins in hand.

I wipe my eyes before I turn around and climb into the wagon. I don’t speak. This is the worst day of my life—things couldn’t get any worse.

This is not what I expected when I woke this morning.

I should’ve stayed home instead.

“You understand, doncha, Pearl?” he says, pulling onto the road.

My lips jut out, and I look down. This isn’t fair.

“Don’t worry, Pearl. You’ll adjust, just like your mama did.”

My eyes focus on a piece of wood shaving I’m picking at on the side of the wagon with my fingernail. “But I wanted to be a teacher,” I moan.

“Ha, you can’t be no teacher. Don’t you got to go off to some special school for trainin’ or somethin’?”

“Yes, sir,” I mumble.

“And how you plan on payin’ for this special school? I sure as hell can’t pay for it. I can hardly keep you kids fed and clothed, let alone pay for some more schoolin’.

“The crops ain’t payin’ like they was, and we don’t got the land like some folks ‘round heres got. We hurtin’, Pearl. Hurtin’. I’m not sure what we gonna do when the baby comes.”

He sighs and slumps. “We is barely survivin’.”

I look at him with depressed eyes.

“Pearl, I tried to be a good daddy to you. Lord knows I didn’t have one.”

He glances at me and hesitates like he’s unsure whether to proceed.

He finally looks at the reins in his hands.

“My mama was fourteen when the war come along. Those northern boys”—he scrunches his nose in disgust—“marched through town like they owned the place, takin’ what they wanted,” he says through clenched teeth.

He doesn’t look at me, avoiding my questioning eyes.

“Pappy said he found her in the woods soaked in pee, blood, and—” He shakes his head and his jaw twitches.

“They did things to her that… Well, the point I’m tryin’ to make, Pearl, is you need a man to protect you. So you’ll be safe from men like that.” He leans over and spits.

“You never told me that story.”

He glances at me and shrugs. “I don’t like talkin’ about it. I don’t like knowin’ where I come from.”

I swallow with a gulp.

“That’s how you—”

He nods. “Mama died havin’ me, and I didn’t have a daddy. Pappy and Mamma was all I had. They was good, though.”

“I’m sorry, Daddy,” I say, understanding now.

“Listen, the only future you got is to git married. How many boys have courted you?”

I shake my head.

“I figured as much. This is your best opportunity to make somethin’ of yourself. Shoot, you can be a good wife and a mother one day, just like your mama.

“Pierce seems like a gudnuf fella. I’m sure he’ll treatcha right.” He grins, but it’s strained, I can tell. “Him comin’ along is a blessin’.”

I look straight ahead. He’s right, as much as I don’t like to admit it.

Pierce may be my only chance to be a wife and mother, and maybe he’ll be a good husband.

I do want a family of my own, just as much as I want—wanted—to be a teacher.

I don’t want to die alone.

He pulls out his chew bag from his pocket, letting me know the conversation has come to an end.

The rest of the journey home is in silence other than the sound of the wheels rolling along on the dirt, kicking up loose rocks, and a ptuh every now and then.

The birds have even gone quiet.

They must realize now is not a good time to sing.

***

When we get home, Mama greets us with hands on her hips and shaking her head.

“What happened to the one pig you was supposed to buy?” she asks, her small round belly protruding, barely showing she’s three months pregnant.

“Don’t go sassin’ me, woman. They was a good deal I couldn’t pass up.” He plants a kiss on her cheek.

She pushes him away.

Urgh, you stink to high heaven. You smell like those filthy animals.”

He shrugs, turns, and strolls back to the wagon. “We got a cow comin’ after church tomorrow.”

“You bought another cow? We can’t afford that!” she says in a raised voice.

“Didn’t. I traded.” He takes the pigs to the pigpen, shutting the door behind them.

“What did you trade? We got nothin’ to trade.”

He comes back, getting the crate out the wagon.

“Pearl,” is all he says before taking the crate to the chicken coop.

She whirls around, facing me with an opened mouth and arched brow. “Pearl?”

With my head bent, I focus on my finger, which is tracing an orange flower on my dress. I can’t meet her eyes.

He comes back, unhitching the horse. “Yep, she’s gittin’ married tomorrow after church. Make sure she knows what’s expected of her. She’s movin’ to Walterboro.” He walks to the barn, the horse trailing behind him.

Her hand covers her mouth. “Walterboro? Who you marryin’, child?”

“Pierce Hayes,” I mumble.

She looks up and rubs her chin. “Hayes, I don’t know any Hayes. Is he a good man?”

I shrug.

“I don’t know about this, Henry,” she says when Daddy ambles back toward us.

“Don’t go pitchin’ a hissy fit. It’s a done deal, and I ain’t goin’ back on my word. Supper ready?” he asks and disappears into the house without waiting for an answer.

She wraps her arm around my shoulder as we watch the door shut behind him.

“This ain’t what I expected when you left this mornin’.”

“Me neither.”

She sighs. “It’ll be fine, Pearl. You just do the best you can to be a good wife.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I say, trying in vain to hide the tremor in my voice.

 

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